TERRE HAUTE, Ind. —Wichita State forward Gabe Blair struggled through February a year ago. A bruised thigh cost him three games and limited his playing time and performance.
If late January is any indication, Blair is gearing up for a much finer February as a senior. Playing with a hairline fracture in a vertebra, Blair is on the best tear of his two seasons at WSU.
"He's very active and energetic," WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. "He doesn't look like a guy with a back injury."
The Shockers (18-4, 9-2 Missouri Valley Conference) will need another big game from Blair tonight at Indiana State (12-10, 7-4). WSU is tied for first place with Missouri State with eight conference games remaining. The Sycamores will try to snap a three-game losing streak, one that started with a three-overtime loss at WSU on Jan. 22.
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Blair returned to the starting lineup that night with 12 points and a career-high 12 rebounds. He is averaging 13.3 points and nine rebounds in the past three games, compiling his first two double-doubles as a Shocker. He scored a career-high 18 points at Southern Illinois on Wednesday and followed that with 10 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks in Saturday's win over Bradley.
"He's going out there and showing us he can play 100 percent, even though he's hurting," teammate Ben Smith said. "We're trying to feed off him."
Marshall is playing Blair a few more minutes as a starter, one reason his production is up. WSU coaches and trainer Todd Fagan are cautious with Blair's back, allowing him to sit out practices when needed to keep the fracture from growing. When watching Blair crash into the rebounding scrums, it's easy to forget the injury exists.
"It's not a 100 (percent), but it's not an excuse, either," Blair said. "I learned how to play with it, and hopefully, I will keep playing with it."
The back isn't the only body part bothering Blair. He's played and practiced five seasons of physical, aggressive basketball and feels it at times.
"Southern Illinois, my back was hurting and my knee hurt before the game," he said. "Then my foot hurt during the game. My health ain't great during the games. As long as I can play, I feel I can produce and be a difference-maker out there."
Blair produced good numbers as a reserve — he leads WSU in rebounds (six a game) and blocks (17) and is third with 16 steals. He started against Nicholls State, but fouls limited him to a scoreless 15 minutes. When Marshall put him back in the starting lineup in place of Aaron Ellis, Blair stood out.
In Blair's mind, starting means Marshall believes in him. He gives WSU a good complement to center J.T. Durley, a talented scorer. Blair is a fearless rebounder who is quick enough to guard shooters and strong enough to play defense in the lane. While his jump shot looks unorthodox, he uses the backboard and rarely takes a bad shot. Blair made 17 of 25 shots during his three-game tenure as a starter.
"I've been given an opportunity to showcase my talents," Blair said. "Starting, it feels good to know your coach trusts you enough to put you out there first and expects carry the tempo and make sure the game is in hand early."
Marshall would love that scenario to play out tonight. The Shockers, while tied with Missouri State, face a tougher schedule this month. They must play at Missouri State and at third-place Northern Iowa.
Tonight's game is just as worrisome. Before their recent struggles, Indiana State won six straight games and defeated Northern Iowa, MSU and Creighton at the Hulman Center.