ST. LOUIS — Fans from other Missouri Valley Conference schools cheering on their teams in St. Louis this weekend are short on numbers at least in comparison to the 7,500 Shocker fans who stuffed Scottrade Center on Saturday.
But the non-Shocker Valley fans whove been watching the Shockers play this weekend are not short on opinions about the team that dominated their conference this season.
And even though the Shockers have beaten up on each of their teams two and now in some cases three times this season, Valley fans say its hard to hate the team.
Obviously, youre always a little bitter toward the top team in the conference, said Tim McVicker, an Illinois State fan who was watching the Shockers dismantle Evansville in the opening round Friday. But as fans of the MVC, were all excited that theyre doing so well.
Large groups of non-Shocker fans were a little difficult to spot in the sea of black and yellow in the arena during Shocker games both Friday and Saturday. But a maroon block of Southern Illinois Salukis were occupying several rows in the arenas southwest corner. Patches of Indiana State blue and Illinois State red took up real estate in the northeast section.
Many of those fans turned out to watch the Shockers play both days, even though the Shockers werent playing their teams. And many of them were visibly cheering both days for whoever was trying to beat the Shockers Evansville on Friday and Missouri State on Saturday.
(Missouri State had less luck than Evansville, falling 67-42 to WSU.)
But just because they were rooting against the Shockers, they said, they dont necessarily dislike them.
You always root for the underdog, said Tim Soehnlin, an Illinois State graduate openly cheering for Evansville on Friday. But its good for the MVC as a conference to have the only undefeated team left in the country.
Many non-Shocker fans said that their love of the Missouri Valley Conference had them conflicted about their feelings. On the one hand, WSUs dominance is good for the conference. On the other hand, if the Shockers would just lose in St. Louis, another Valley team would get a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Brothers Tim and Josh Mieldezis were in the front of the Southern Illinois Saluki fan section during Fridays Shocker game, and if not for their maroon sweatshirts, they could have been mistaken for Evansville fans, so ardently were they cheering for every Evansville basket.
Are they anti-Shockers?
In this tournament, yes, said Tim, a senior at Southern Illinois. Itd be nice to have two MVC teams in the tournament. And preferably, wed rather not play you when you advance in this tournament.
What about after this tournament?
When you get into the NCAA Tournament, Ill definitely be cheering for you, he said.
Outside of Wichita, Valley fans seem to universally love guard Ron Baker, who apparently is inspiring man-crushes all across the Midwest. And they seem to universally loathe coach Gregg Marshall, whom they describe as whiny.
All say theyre impressed by the volume in which Shocker fans traveled to St. Louis this weekend. Gawking at the black-and-yellow-clad fans filling up nearly every section of Scottrade Center on Saturday, a group of Indiana State fans said they felt severely surrounded.
I was surprised, said Gregg Thiel, an Indiana State fan sitting just behind Missouri States bench on Saturday. This year, its like the whole stadium is Shockers. Its like were playing in their stadium.
Indiana State fans will feel that way again Sunday: The Sycamores advanced to the title game against WSU by beating Southern Illinois in Saturdays other semifinal.
As both of the Shockers games wound down on Friday and Saturday, non-WSU fans could frequently be seen shaking their heads in disbelief at every Cleanthony Early dunk, every Tekele Cotton three-pointer.
They seemed equal parts awestruck and annoyed, and some fans admitted it.
Theyre just so talented, said Illinois State fan Scott Clark, who admitted that hed sort of like to see the Shockers losing streak at the Valley Tournament remain intact.
We watched them make this amazing play, and we said, What do you even do with that? How do you even stop it?
Valley fans say they cant help but daydream a little about the Shockers eventual demise.
Chris Craffets, an Indiana State fan, said it was a big deal this year when the Shockers visited Terre Haute. It gave fans there a chance to fantasize about what it would be like if their team could be the one to finally stop the Shockers.
As he watched the clock wind down during Saturdays WSU game, it was hard not to let his mind wander there again, he said.
I respect them, he said. Its an impressive thing that theyre doing. But I would love for our team to be the one that beats them.
Everybody would want that. If they lose, whoever beats them is going to get a lot of national recognition.