Before Wichita State looks forward to what it hopes is a memorable March, it should take a few minutes to savor its fabulous February.
No. 15 WSU went 8-0 in February, its seventh unbeaten month as a NCAA Division I school. The Shockers (26-4) wrapped up the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title with a finishing kick that moved them into the national rankings.
“If we wanted to compete for a championship, we knew we couldn’t lose any more games,” WSU senior Toure Murry said. “We had that pressure to us, to make sure we came out every night with that high intensity.”
Top-seeded WSU opens MVC Tournament play in a quarterfinal game on Friday against either eighth-seeded Indiana State (17-13) or ninth-seeded Southern Illinois (8-22). The Shockers will be favored all weekend, largely because a month’s worth of efficient offense and lockdown defense indicates the rest of the Valley is at least a step behind.
The Shockers started February 9-2 in the MVC, coming off a 93-86 triple-overtime loss at Drake on Jan. 28. Creighton led the MVC at 10-1. After Drake won to knock the Shockers out of a first-place tie, students and fans rushed the court. If the Shockers had become complacent, that scene, and the disappointing way they lost, shook them up.
“That left a sour taste in our mouth and we rededicated ourselves to not letting that happen again,” guard David Kyles said. “We had to perform at our peak capabilities every night, because we were getting every team’s best shot.”
Before WSU’s next game, forward Carl Hall told coaches he played better coming off the bench. Coach Gregg Marshall put Ben Smith in the starting lineup against Missouri State and WSU hasn’t lost since. Smith’s outside shooting ability stretches the defense, surrounding center Garrett Stutz with four shooters. Hall subs in for Stutz at center and keeps him rooted in the lane, his comfort zone.
“When Ben starts, he plays better,” Hall said. “If Stutz is not on, when I come in I can contribute a little more.”
Creighton gave up control of the race with a three-game losing streak, including WSU’s 89-68 win on Feb. 11 in Omaha. The Shockers kept getting better.
WSU’s statistics over those eight games (seven Valley games and the Bracketbusters game at Davidson) are dominant:
• The Shockers led the MVC in scoring offense (78.6 points) and scoring margin (plus-15.8). They shot better than any other team (52 percent) from all over and outside the three-point arc (43.6 percent). WSU made 108 of 129 free throws (83.7 percent), again tops in the Valley.
• On defense, WSU held opponents to 62.9 points, second in the MVC. Opponents made 40 percent of their shots, best in the MVC along with Drake, and 35.3 percent from three-point range, third best.
• Rebounding margin (plus-6.2), blocked shots (4.4) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.5) — WSU led in those categories, as well.
WSU’s offensive efficiency took a step up during February as the Shockers rarely forced bad shots or turned the ball over. Every player found his niche on offense and stuck with it. Murry and Demetric Williams cut down on their outside shooting and focused on getting the ball to Stutz, Smith and Joe Ragland. With three guards capable of running the break, WSU turned missed shots and turnovers into open shots.
“We’re just clicking on offense,” Hall said. “We’re stealing points. We run our sets through and get easy baskets.”
When Marshall watches the Shockers methodically work through defenses to get Stutz a layup or run the break for an Smith three-pointer, he sees the benefit of extra basketball. Last season’s NIT run provided WSU five games and almost a month of practice after most teams started vacation. The Shockers regrouped in the summer for 10 practices and five games in Brazil.
“When we’re clicking, we look pretty good,” he said. “It’s because we’ve played a lot of basketball.”
Missouri Valley Conference beat writers voted both to the Most-Improved team, one day after both earned All-MVC honors.
Stutz, a senior center, averaged 14.7 minutes and 7.2 points as a junior. He started 29 games this season, averaging 14.1 points and 8.0 rebounds. Ragland, a senior guard, averaged 7.0 points and made 31.3 percent of his three-pointers last season. He averages 13.2 points and shoots 47.7 percent on three-pointers.
Coach of the Year honors are announced at a luncheon today.
Others on the Most Improved team are Ben Simons, Drake (team captain); Jackie Carmichael, Illinois State; Walt Lemon, Bradley; and Caleb Patterson, Missouri State.
All-Bench Team - Ned Cox, Evansville (Team captain); Kurt Alexander, Drake; Bryant Allen, Illinois State; Chip Rank, Northern Iowa; Ethan Wragge, Creighton
• WSU senior David Kyles has advanced to the final round of the Dark Horse Dunker voting competition. The winner will compete in the Slam Dunk Competition at the Final Four in New Orleans on March 29. Fans can vote for Kyles at Facebook.com/collegeslam.
More honors — Wichita
State’s Garrett Stutz and Joe
Ragland added to their post−
season awards Wednesday.
Missouri Valley Conference
beat writers voted both to the
Most-Improved team, one day
after both earned All-MVC
honors. They joined Drake’s
Ben Simons, Illinois State’s
Jackie Carmichael, Bradley’s
Walt Lemon and Missouri
State’s Caleb Patterson.
The All-Bench team was
Ned Cox, Evansville; Kurt
Alexander, Drake; Bryant
Allen, Illinois State; Chip
Rank, Northern Iowa; and
Ethan Wragge, Creighton.
WSU senior David Kyles
advanced to the final round of
the Dark Horse Dunker voting
competition. The winner will
compete in the Slam Dunk
Competition at the Final Four
in New Orleans on March 29.
Fans can vote for Kyles at