Wichita State Shockers

February 29, 2012

Bob Lutz: Time for Wichita State to own the Arch

You can’t make this stuff up, this stuff about how Wichita State has fared in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in St. Louis over the years.

You can’t make this stuff up, this stuff about how Wichita State has fared in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in St. Louis over the years.

But this struggle or curse or whatever you want to call it in STL isn’t only a product of the postseason.

For three decades, Wichita State and Saint Louis were members of the MVC and the Shockers played the Billikens 30 times at Kiel Auditorium, near where the Scottrade Center, site of the Valley tournament, now sits.

WSU won six of those 30. Six. And the Shockers needed double overtime for one of them, a 109-103 thriller on Feb. 18, 1956. Wichita State played in St. Louis against the Billikens 11 times before finally winning, then lost four more in a row at Kiel.

Then there were the two games WSU played against Washington, a St. Louis university that was a Valley member for about 11 minutes during the mid-1940s. WSU played Washington twice on its home floor and lost both games.

That comes to a record of 17-46 in the city with the Arch. For Wichita State, it’s the city with the “Aargh!”

And that’s why this is such an important three days starting Friday at noon for the Shockers, who meet Indiana State or Southern Illinois in the quarterfinals.

This is a Missouri Valley Conference regular-season championship team. Wichita State has lost only four games all season and two came in November, which is outside the reach of memory for some of us. These Shockers are loaded and have established themselves as the best and most dominant team in the conference.

Don’t tell me about how WSU has already locked up a spot in the NCAA Tournament and can afford to let down its guard this weekend. While it’s true the Shockers are a cinch to get an NCAA invitation, this is the time to bust down the door in St. Louis.

But first the Shockers have to climb over the wall. Wichita State has advanced past the semifinals of a St. Louis Valley tournament only once, in 2010. Gregg Marshall is 4-4 in St. Louis since taking over. That might not sound like much, but with the way WSU has played in St. Louis, it’s impressive he’s been able to go .500.

Marshall’s rationality tells him that winning in St. Louis this weekend isn’t imperative for an NCAA Tournament bid. But the competitor in him, and it’s a competitor that overwhelms his rational side every time, wants to handle this weird St. Louis thing once and for all.

“There have been a lot of firsts this season, a lot of bests,’’ Marshall said. “I would like to see us win this tournament. This is my 14th year coaching and I’ve been to eight championships. I’m 7-1 but I haven’t gotten it done here yet. It’s another challenge, another check mark. We haven’t been able to complete the circle.’’

Wichita State has risen to No. 15 in the AP poll there’s a bullet by the Shockers’ name. Momentum has been roped and this team doesn’t want to turn it loose.

“We have a lot of pride so we don’t want to lose a game,’’ WSU senior guard Joe Ragland said. “We want to stay at where we’re ranked or go up and not down. Definitely, last year in this tournament was disappointing. To lose that early and not accomplish our goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament was tough.’’

The Shockers turned a consolation prize into a thoroughly enjoyable run to the NIT championship, winning under the bright lights of New York. And immediately after it was over, the players who would be returning for the 2011-12 season adamantly decreed that there would not be another NIT in their future.

And those players also have been focusing on St. Louis, aware of the difficulties the Shockers have faced in this city since first playing a game here in 1937, when WSU lost to Saint Louis 26-24.

These players’ parents weren’t born then, but it’s telling in how long the Shockers have been swinging and missing when they play games in St. Louis. The Shockers played in six Valley tournaments from 1991 through 1997 before finally winning a game in 1998. They were fortunate enough to miss the tournament in 1996 because of their last-place conference finish.

For a program with a rich history, not having cut down the nets in St. Louis is a noticeable blemish.

“Right now it’s do or die,’’ Ragland said.

Well, not really. Even if the Shockers don’t, they will live to play in the NCAA Tournament.

But I like Ragland’s attitude. It’s important for the Shockers to be the last men standing in St. Louis, where they’ve fallen so hard for so long.

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