Relatively speaking, Wichita State senior Demetric Williams went through hard times earlier in his career. He had to settle for the NIT as a freshman and sophomore. Twice, his teams lost two games in a row.
He won’t get sympathy from most college basketball players, but Williams does know what it takes to endure disappointment. He played with teammates — J.T. Durley, Toure Murry, Garrett Stutz and others — who gained even more experience absorbing blows and rebounding in previous seasons.
Other than Williams, most of the current Shocker roster lived a dream life. The young players won big. The newcomers heard all about a program that wins 20 games and championships, without living through the hard work and daily grind.
Now they’ve gone through it together.
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WSU (20-5, 9-4 Missouri Valley Conference) survived its first three-game losing streak since 2009 and defeated Missouri State on Saturday. The Shockers play Drake (11-13, 5-8) on Wednesday, hopeful that the experience will produce a tougher, smarter, more united team. Coach Gregg Marshall turned his starting lineup over to his four seniors after days of meetings and consternation. They wanted to take charge and he let experience take the lead.
“It will bring us a lot closer and let us know that if you slack off or if you don’t bring the energy every night, you can lose three games in a row and lose to teams that you shouldn’t lose to,” Williams said. “If you’re not hungry, like we were in the beginning, you will lose.”
As late as mid-January, this season set up the new Shockers for a fall. They blew out Northern Iowa in their MVC opener, giving newcomers no reason to believe the talk about gritty conference opponents. WSU kept winning, even as some of their good habits slipped away.
“When you’re winning, you kind of don’t learn until you get hit a couple times,” Williams said.
The Shockers stopped their slide just in time. They are in a three-way tie atop the MVC with Indiana State and Creighton. They alone can control their destiny — win out and win the title. Their NCAA Tournament resume remains solid — ESPN’s Joe Lunardi places them as a No. 8 seed — with a declining margin for error.
Wednesday’s game starts a tough stretch, highlighted by games at Creighton, Illinois State and Indiana State. Drake is the only team on the remaining schedule with a losing record.
The Shocker team that shot poorly and played a half-step slow on defense won’t survive. The team that passed the ball crisply and played aggressive defense to beat Missouri State by 29 points has a chance.
“Tough times always make you stronger,” guard Malcolm Armstead said. “It’s going to help us down the road. Now we know how to handle the situations. We’ve got to get more stops. We’ve got to execute. We’ve got to get out and run.”
Drake is 2-5 in MVC road games, where its three-point shooting and scoring slip. WSU defeated Drake 75-63 on Jan. 2, holding the Bulldogs to 28-percent three-point shooting, well below its standard of 43.9 percent in home games and 40 percent in all games.
“They have a lot of weapons,” Marshall said.