ST. LOUIS — It's not easy trying to score in late February in the Missouri Valley Conference. Defenders know what's coming, and most are willing to grab, hold and push to stop scorers.
Even the late-season grind, however, doesn't explain Wichita State's offense in the first half of Saturday's loss at Missouri State. When the Shockers watched the game on video, they couldn't explain it, either. As coach Gregg Marshall said after the game — poor decisions, poor passing, poor shooting. The fact WSU didn't record an assist in the first half tells Marshall his players tried to win the game on their own, not trusting the offensive system that got them to the final game of the regular season tied for first.
"That's not good basketball," Marshall said. "We lost our composure."
Those are problems the second-seeded Shockers (23-7) need to fix if they want to win the MVC Tournament. WSU plays its first game at 6:05 p.m. Friday in the quarterfinals against either seventh-seeded Drake (13-17) or 10th-seeded Bradley (11-19).
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"Sometimes we lose the concept of moving the ball around and making the defense work," guard Demetric Williams said. "In the Missouri State game, it slipped away. Some of the stuff we were doing was not in our character. We've got to work as a team."
The first 15 minutes of that 69-64 loss provided plenty of examples. The Shockers looked like a different team than the one that played the previous 29 games.
They committed nine turnovers in the first half — after committing nine or fewer in seven games. They took quick shots, such as Toure Murry's runner after one pass. They settled for guarded jumpers, such as J.T. Durley's turnaround early in the game and a difficult shot on the move by Gabe Blair later in the half.
Post players allowed Missouri State defenders to push them away from the basket, and Durley picked up a charging foul on a drive to the basket, something he rarely tries to execute.
As a result, WSU missed 17 of 26 shots and trailed 32-21 at halftime. Better shooting and ballhandling in the second half helped, though not enough.
For most of the season, WSU played unselfish, efficient offense. In conference games, the Shockers led the MVC in points (71.8), assists (14.9) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.3). Their shooting percentage of 46.9 is second, with a three-point accuracy of 33.3 percent dragging that down.
Sometimes, a refresher course helps, and that's what the Shockers are getting this week in practice in offensive drills.
"Our execution has been pretty bad," junior Ben Smith said. "Basically all of it — moving without the ball, making good decisions when we're passing the ball. The shots we're taking are pretty good shots, we just need to start hitting them."
In its past three games, WSU hasn't broken 70 points or shot better than 43 percent from the field. Virginia Commonwealth held WSU to 7-of-23 shooting from three-point range. The Shockers shot well from long-range (6 of 15) against Creighton, but only 40.7 percent overall.
"We've got tons of offensive plays in our arsenal," senior Graham Hatch said. "We just need to be better at executing those. It's all about doing the little things — screening, cutting — that make your offense really good."
MSU kept the Shockers out of the lane and forced them into some of the lowest-reward shots available — guarded two-point jump shots. Durley, WSU's leading scorer, took only five shots and scored six points.
"We had a really hard time getting it inside," Hatch said. "Once we are able to go over that again and get it refreshed, it will come back to us."
Marshall is confident in his team's defense and rebounding entering the tournament. He also likes his team's experience in St. Louis — a feeling no other WSU coach experienced. The Shockers made the championship game last season for the first time since the tournament moved to St. Louis in 1991, losing to Northern Iowa. Playing in that game, Marshall hopes, is an asset for this week.
"There's a lot of work to be done even to get there," he said. "I like the progression we've made."
Pep rally in St. Louis — WSU's athletic department and the Alumni Association will hold a pep rally two hours before each MVC Tournament game at the Westin St. Louis. Marshall will speak, joined by the pep band and cheerleaders.
Three Shockers earn honors — Smith was named captain of the Missouri Valley's All-Bench team on Wednesday.
Smith, a 6-foot-4 forward from Oklahoma City, averaged 7.1 points and 2.2 rebounds and scored in double figures 10 times. He was named MVC Sixth Man of the Year on Tuesday.
WSU center Garrett Stutz, a 7-foot junior from Kansas City, Mo., was also named to the All-Bench team. Stutz averaged 6.6 points and 3.4 rebounds.
Junior David Kyles, from Dallas, was named to the Most Improved team. Kyles, a 6-4 guard, is second on the team with an average of 10 points. He made 40.5 percent of his three-pointers and started 21 games. Last season, Kyles averaged 5.2 points and shot 31.5 percent from behind the arc.
The teams are voted on by newspaper beat writers.
All-Bench team —Smith, Stutz; Ned Cox, Evansville; Jordan Printy, Indiana State; Jahenns Manigat, Creighton.
Most Improved team —Kyles; Anthony James, Northern Iowa; Will Creekmore, Missouri State; Dyricus Simms-Edwards, Bradley; Antoine Young, Creighton.