Wichita State’s basketball players will gladly let the fans go crazy over a 15-0 record. The fans will happily take that duty.
The eighth-ranked Shockers defeated Northern Iowa 67-53 on Sunday at Koch Arena, inspiring all sorts of creativity from the crowd. One couple wore matching black T-Shirts, one reading “14” and and the other “0” with “15” ready to wear. One sign proclaimed “We’re still undefeated” and another read “15-0.”
Breaking a record set by the 1953-54 team didn’t inspire similar giddiness from the Shockers.
“At this point of the season, that didn’t really matter,” center Chadrack Lufile said. “Talking about it isn’t really what you need to do to get it done. It’s not a surprise that this is where we’re at.”
Another sign read “Captain VanTastic” and that piece of white cardboard summed up Sunday just as well. WSU guard Fred VanVleet scored a career-high 22 points, making 8 of 12 shots, to accompany three assists and no turnovers in 35 minutes.
“He was a bad boy,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said.
Defense — there’s a topic that the Shockers (15-0, 2-0 Missouri Valley Conference) enjoy. They held UNI (7-7, 1-1) to 33.9-percent shooting. The Panthers must make three-pointers to win (their 299 attempts ranked second in the MVC entering the game) and WSU held them to 5 of 24 for the game. Three of those made threes came in the game’s first four minutes to go up 12-2. After that, UNI went 2 for 20.
“They jumped on us and drove it and made shots,” Marshall said. “After that, the last 36 minutes, I thought were pretty good.”
Marshall liked the rest of the game because of defense. WSU shot 38.1 percent from the field, victimized by several shots that rolled around and out, and survived because of its defense. The Shockers blocked eight shots, three by Lufile, and scored 18 points off 11 Panther turnovers.
“When you catch them on a day like today, where they do miss some open ones, you’ve got to have your offense going better than we did," UNI coach Ben Jacobson said.
WSU allowed Southern Illinois to shoot 54.1 percent in Thursday’s MVC opener. Before Christmas, North Carolina Central came to Koch Arena and made 51 percent. While the Shockers lead the MVC in shooting defense, those numbers didn’t sit well.
“Coach talked about getting our identity back,” VanVleet said. “We’ve got to take more pride on that end of the floor, individually and collectively.”
The Shockers took a step toward regaining that reputation. They dove on the floor. They chased shooters. They blocked shots and altered others. While UNI guard Deon Mitchell scored 16 points, no other Panther reached double figures. Center Seth Tuttle missed seven of eight shots. Guard Wes Washpun committed five turnovers. Guard Matt Bohannon made two three-pointers in the first four minutes of the game and didn’t score again.
"We’ve got a whole bunch of guys here that are long enough and athletic enough that we should be able to defend," WSU’s Cleanthony Early said. "We feel like that’s our identity."
It isn’t about strategy; it’s about making defense a priority. The Shockers are good enough on offense that they can let defense slip. That isn’t how they want to win.
“We wanted to come out and put a defensive performance on," VanVleet said. "If you want to go deep and win championships and be consistent, you’ve got to defend and rebound."
VanVleet capped his superb day with two three-point plays. The first gave the Shockers a 64-47 lead with 2:27 to play. Seconds later, he drove the lane and scored and drew another foul. He flexed his biceps briefly while on the floor as the crowd roared. The free throw gave WSU a 67-47 lead and Marshall cleared the bench.
Early scored five straight points to give WSU a 43-33 lead with 14:07 remaining. Then the Shockers went cold again, allowing UNI to climb back. They missed four shots in a row — three from three-point range — before Nick Wiggins’ bank shot for a 45-39 lead. Tekele Cotton made two 15-foot jumpers to restore the 10-point edge at 49-39.
Jacobson watched the second shot go in and called timeout with 10:21 to play, trying to quiet the crowd and stop the momentum. The break didn’t help.
After a three by Nate Buss, the Shockers started rolling again. Darius Carter’s free throws started an 8-2 run that put WSU up 57-44.
UNI didn’t get closer than 12 points the rest of the way.
The Shockers own the school record for consecutive wins and remain in the select group of unbeatens. Two teams ranked ahead of them in the Associated Press top 25 lost, clearing the way for further ascension before Wednesday’s home game against Illinois State.
That gives fans three days to work on their signs.