CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Wichita State basketball coach Gregg Marshall won't traffic in word games or sugar-coating to downplay February's challenges.
He looks at them as opportunities, and wants his team to understand the stakes. The Shockers play at No. 24 Northern Iowa tonight, starting a month that will make or break conference and postseason hopes.
That's the truth, and Marshall think his team can handle the truth. He talked about running the table after Sunday's victory at Southern Illinois — a phrase stricken from most coaches' playbooks.
"We're going to have to win a whole lot of games to get in (to the NCAA Tournament)," he said. "We know that. One of the reasons I came to Wichita State is for a multi-bid league. I hope we put ourselves in a position to make them make a tough decision."
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WSU (19-4, 8-3 Missouri Valley Conference) is on the edge of the at-large discussion, and on the edge of the MVC race. No. 24 Northern Iowa (19-2, 10-1) can all but finish off the league tonight. A win would give the Panthers a three-game lead with six to play.
The Shockers interpret Marshall's long-range plans as confidence. They're 19-4, so why not talk about more wins? They talked about winning championships from the start, so why deny it now?
"I think it's great," junior Graham Hatch said. "You know what you're playing for, you know your end goal."
After tonight, WSU doesn't play another MVC team with a winning conference record.
"He sees an opportunity for us to steal a win on the road," junior Gabe Blair said. "The matchups we've got after that are in our favor. He's telling everybody what we feel we can do."
A perfect February starts with a difficult test against the almost-perfect Panthers. They built their two-game lead by playing solid defense and patient offense. They don't turn the ball over. They don't foul. They don't lose their composure.
WSU won the first meeting 60-51 by building an early lead and hanging on in the second half. Its defense held the Panthers to eight baskets in the first half to help the Shockers lead 29-17 at the break.
"They do a good job of not allowing you to get a lot of easy looks to their basket," UNI coach Ben Jacobson said. "Their rotations are good. They cover up very well for each other."
The Shockers want to use their quickness and long arms to win the battle for a few precious inches. They can disrupt the Panther offense by forcing post players to catch the ball a few steps outside the lane. They can shut down outside shooters — UNI made 2 of 13 threes in the first game — by making them shoot over hands. The Panthers are slumping from behind the arc in recent games — 26.2 percent in their past four.
"If we can push them out a little bit further than they want to catch the ball... take advantage of our size in some spots and our speed and quickness in others," Blair said.
Truth is, it won' t be easy. The Shockers, however, are happy to be in a position where this game matters. Couple a win tonight with a win at Utah State on Feb. 20, and the Shockers are a strong NCAA Tournament candidate.
That's the truth, also. And they know.
"This team has dealt with the truth all year very well," Marshall said. "I don't hide it. We don't have too much room for error if we're going to be in that conversation at the end."