For two months, the MVC race boiled down to Missouri State’s starters vs. Wichita State’s depth. While MSU coach Cuonzo Martin rode his starters for 30-plus minutes a game, WSU coach Gregg Marshall mixed and matched and used a myriad of lineups.
Both approaches worked. Martin was the guy in the MVC championship T-shirt on Saturday because his starters are better than Marshall’s, and WSU’s depth wasn’t enough of a factor in the two meetings. Martin owned the best player on the court in Kyle Weems, the second-best player in Jermaine Mallett and a big man (Will Creekmore) who is certainly the equal of any Shocker. Adam Leonard is as good a shooter than any one Shocker, and better than most from three-point range. Nafis Ricks disrupted WSU’s offense with his defense and handed out eight assists with no turnovers.
In both meetings, MSU starters dominated WSU’s. Shockers starters (Ellis, Durley, Murry, Hatch, Kyles (Game 1) and Ragland (Game 2) ) shot 19 of 53 (35.8 percent) and scored 55 points in the two games. MSU starters (Weems, Leonard, Mallett, Creekmore, Ricks) went 40 for 98 (40.8 percent) and scored 114 points.
The big difference is three-point shooting and drawing fouls. MSU’s starters went 14 for 35 (40 percent) from three-point range in the two games. WSU’s went 5 for 16 (31) percent. MSU’s starters shot 30 of 40 from the foul line in two games. WSU starters went 12 of 18. So it’s not that MSU starters played great in both games. They did play a lot better than WSU’s, and that’s what matters. WSU’s starters are not going to win the statistical battles, because they play fewer minutes. But they must be more efficient and give the depth a chance to matter.
In both games, WSU used whatever advantage it had in depth on mounting a comeback, not building a lead. Both games became a matter of making one or two plays in the final minutes. MSU did. WSU did not. If the teams meet again in St. Louis, WSU’s starters must play better or nothing will change. Against good teams, teams that can control the tempo, the Shockers struggle to score. The Shockers lack players who can create their own shot. Almost everything has to come off the break or from a set play that works. That’s not going to change much over the next week, so the Shockers must do what they do more effectively and more players need to play well.
WSU should be able to feel good about a 23-7, 14-4 MVC record. Win 76 and 77 percent of your games, and you’ve done quite well. Unfortunately, all it’s gotten the Shockers to this point is an NIT lock and second place in the Valley. That’s the harsh reality of being an MVC school this season. We’ll hear griping about WSU’s non-conference schedule. How fair is criticism? Consider that WSU played 12 non-conference games and its non-conference strength of schedule ranked No. 53 nationally and by far tops in the MVC (according to RPIRatings.com). Indiana State is next at No. 132, so WSU is so much better than the rest of the MVC it’s embarrassing for nine schools. Of those 12 non-conference games, eight were set up a year or more ago, either by contract (Maui Invitational, UMKC, LSU and Tulsa series) or by conference obligation (BracketBusters and the Mountain West game). That left WSU four games to play with for this season. That’s not a lot of flexibility. Would it kill WSU to seek one more tough game? Probably not. I also know it’s easier said than done finding the right opponent and matching dates. It will be interesting to see if this season changes the way WSU schedules. I don’t anticipate Gregg Marshall going on the market for 2-for-1s or no-return games, and I’m not a fan of those deals in most circumstances. He likes to win, and that’s the best way to the NCAA Tournament. If I were at WSU, I would demand the other MVC schools improve their scheduling. The best way for WSU to improves its RPI and number of quality wins is to get those opportunities in MVC play. That’s not going to happen in a conference when half of teams are ranked 223 or lower in non-conference strength of schedule. WSU finished one game out of first for the eighth time as an MVC member. That’s a lot of what ifs and close calls. Shocker history would look dramatically differently had half of those teams come up with an MVC title. This season’s team will remember the home loss to Southern Illinois. It’s disappointing to lose any home game. Losing to the MVC’s eighth-place team (at a time when the Salukis were at their lowest point) at home can’t happen if you want to win a championship. February is turning into the cruelest month for WSU fans. The 2005 team was cruising along, in contention for the MVC title and an at-large bid after going 8-1 to start MVC play. It went 3-6 in February (including a BracketBusters loss) to finish second in the MVC, three games behind SIU. The 2007 team wobbled in January, but was still in the at-large picture thanks to its fabulous non-conference performance. It went 2-5 in February. The 2010 Shockers went 4-4 in February, including an RPI-killing loss at Evansville. The 2011 Shockers went 5-3, not quite good enough. Toure Murry reminds me of a pitcher who can’t repeat his delivery. His shot looks different every time. Sometimes it’s a set shot. Sometimes it’s a jumper. Sometimes it’s a fade-away. Sometimes it’s a mish-mash of all that. It’s obvious he’s lost on offense and he has to find a way to cut turnovers and remain a threat to score without taking bad shots. After a brief upswing in his shooting against Illinois State, SIU and UNI, Murry is struggling again. After going 1 for 5 against MSU, Murry is 4 for 25 in the past three games. More than any Shocker, I think he needs an up-and-down game to thrive. He might be the key guy in St. Louis. It’s hard to see WSU winning three in a row if Murry isn’t playing well. His defense and rebounding remain important, so there are many times he has to be on the floor. For all his shooting woes this season, he leads WSU in minutes, an indication Marshall views him as valuable. He is, of course. He’s just more valuable with more made shots and fewer turnovers. I’m tempted to say it’s good for WSU to avoid Creighton’s side of the bracket in St. Louis. The Bluejays look like a dangerous team, based on their 67-65 loss at WSU last week. Indiana State, the No. 3 seed, is just as dangerous. Dwayne Lathan is playing well for the Sycamores after struggling with an injury and he can be a game-changer. WSU hasn’t seen the best of Lathan. He scored 11 points in the first game this season. He played only 14 minutes in the rematch in Terre Haute. Last season, he missed both games with injuries. Perhaps it’s a bit of a break not potentially playing Creighton, but not much of one. I haven’t covered many court-storming games. That one was scary if you were watching the Shockers. I watched Joe Ragland and J.T. Durley get jostled quite a bit in that swarm of fans. It’s impossible to control those fans, and perhaps foolish to try. But it’s putting the losing team (WSU in this case) in a difficult situation where emotions are high on both sides. Schools are fortunate those situations don’t turn ugly. One day it will. Perhaps the home team should assign a security person to each visitor on the floor to try and get them to the locker room without incident.
Around the Valley
Fill in the name – Ben Jacobson, Tim Pickett, Nate Funk, Booker Woodfox. Adam Leonard joins the list of Shocker-killers. Jermaine Mallett hurt the Shockers more than any other Bear on Saturday. Antoine Young carried Creighton past Northern Iowa. Indiana State finishes third and sweeps SIU. Bradley routs Drake. Perhaps the Bulldogs went vanilla to save strategy for Thursday’s rematch. Colt Ryan scores 32 points to lead Evansville past Illinois State. Will fans love Evansville basketball again? Jerry Sloan returned to Roberts Stadium for the last Aces game in the arena.