Wichita State's basketball team needs to drag somebody down for it to climb the Missouri Valley Conference standings.
The schedule presents the Shockers with a tantalizing opportunity with Tuesday's opener. WSU travels to Illinois State, the team that benefited the most from the fall of the Shockers in 2007-08 and 2008-09.
There is no better place to start if WSU wants to return to relevance in the MVC.
"That will be a great indicator for us," WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. "If we can go up there and get that one, man, that bodes well."
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WSU and ISU spent most of the decade in separate parts of the Valley. WSU started the 2000s looking up at the Redbirds, who finished second in 2001 and third in 2002. Then WSU took hold of the series under coach Mark Turgeon. The Shockers won nine straight and finished ahead of the Redbirds for five straight seasons.
Redbird coach Tim Jankovich changed the momentum when ISU hired him. The past two seasons, ISU is 3-1 against the Shockers with two NIT appearances, a second and a third in the Valley. WSU is 12-24 in the Valley.
Now both teams appear to be Valley contenders. WSU is 11-1 and winners of nine straight. Illinois State is 9-2.
One team with high hopes is going to be in a hole before January. The last MVC champion to start 0-1 is the 1993 Redbirds, who went 0-2 and 1-3 before finishing 13-5.
It is not necessary, however, to start the conference schedule at full speed. Southern Illinois went 3-2 in 2007 before finishing 15-3. The 2006 Shockers dropped to 2-2 with two straight losses on their way to a 14-4 record.
Winning the Valley, or coming close, is all about consistency, health and good luck over the 18-game round robin. Non-conference play, often loaded with home games, light travel and light scouting reports, can't simulate the wear.
The difference will be most noticeable on offense, where the open jumpers and open lanes to the rim disappear. Plays that worked against non-conference opponents will be autopsied and diagnosed thoroughly. Favorites moves will be catalogued and countered. Teams that can't adjust and players who don't develop counter-moves are sunk .
"There are so many great coaches in the Valley, and they take that to heart on the defensive end," WSU junior J.T. Durley said. "You don't see many high-scoring Valley games, because it's always a grind-out. It's possession-by-possession games."
No waiting — Interesting as it is, WSU-Illinois State isn't the biggest opener on the MVC schedule.
That distinction goes to Northern Iowa at Creighton, a matchup of the defending co-champions and preseason favorites.
Teams picked No. 1 (UNI) and No. 2 (Creighton) haven't met to open MVC play since the 1989-90 season. No. 1 Creighton lost at No. 2 Tulsa 82-77.
UNI (9-1) looks capable of defending the title. The game is particularly important for the Bluejays (5-6), who struggled through a tough non-conference schedule. They are 0-6 away from the Qwest Center and play three of their next four on the road.
Down one — Bad weather delayed freshman guard Tyler Richardson's flight through Chicago on Saturday. He was the only Shocker not present when the team gathered for its first practice after a four-day break.
The Shockers watched film before heading to the Koch Arena practice gym for their workout.
Richardson, who is redshirting, was expected to arrive late Saturday night.
The number is in the book — All the SEC needed to do was call Wichita State baseball coach Gene Stephenson.
Or fans of the NBC World Series.
They could tell them: A pitch clock works great. College baseball needs it.
The SEC will use a 20-second clock between pitches when the bases are empty, and 90-second clock between half innings for the 2010 conference tournament.
The NBC uses a clock each summer for its national tournament. The MVC used a clock for the 1990 and 1991 seasons. According to an Associated Press story, games finished in an average of two hours, 37 minutes. Last season, SEC tournament games averaged 3:17.
As Stephenson said for years, slow baseball makes for bad TV. Nobody — coaches, fans, players, umpires — benefits from playing baseball for three-plus hours routinely.
"I think it's going to be good for everyone involved," SEC spokesman Chuck Dunlap told the AP. "If it does pretty much guarantee games under three hours, I can promise you the TV networks will push very hard to keep it in place."
Worth noting — Shocker Fitness with Coach Bolt begins a new session on Jan. 4 at Cessna Stadium. Cost is $45 for 30 sessions. For information call 978-5262.... WSU will celebrate homecoming in the days before the Feb. 14 men's basketball game against Missouri State. The activities include a parade, pep rally and bonfire.