Wichita State guard Ron Baker starts his third tour of Missouri Valley Conference arenas. It is time to do more than watch.
“I’m looking forward to Valley play, because I haven’t played in it,” he said. “You get a lot more concentration and focus on your opponent, so that’s pretty exciting.”
No. 8 WSU (13-0) opens MVC play on Thursday at Southern Illinois (4-9) and most of the conference, including the Salukis, will deal with Baker for the first time. He has played more games against the Big East (four) and SEC (three) than MVC teams (two current members).
Baker traveled with the Shockers in 2011-12 while he redshirted. Last season, he traveled with the team while sitting out all 18 conference games with a stress fracture in his left foot. So MVC play is new, yet not so new, to Baker, who returned last season to play in MVC Tournament games against Missouri State, Illinois State and now-departed Creighton. He’s seen enough to know that conference play tests teams in a different way than non-conference games.
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“It’s something you can’t really describe,” he said. “You can always tell stories about different road trips and different games, but you can never describe how intense Valley play is until you really experience it.”
The Shockers started the season as a heavy favorite in the MVC and November and December added to the perception. WSU owns a No. 12 RPI rank and the closest MVC team is Drake at No. 69. WSU is 2-0 against top-50 teams. The rest of the MVC is 1-13. There is more, only serving to drive home the point that WSU should win its second MVC title in the past three years.
WSU does not, however, expect it come easy. While fans and the national media may predict a joy ride to March with little resistance from the likes of Indiana State, Northern Iowa and Evansville, the Shockers are not buying it.
“Anybody who thinks that has never been through the Valley,” WSU guard Fred VanVleet said.
On Tuesday, WSU coach Gregg Marshall emphasized that each team is 0-0. He knows visits from the Shockers will likely attract the largest crowds of the season in most arenas with fans ready to rush the court. Last season’s Final Four team went 5-4 in MVC road games, losing at Evansville, Northern Iowa, SIU and Creighton.
“I told them you’re going to get everybody’s best shot,” he said. “The people who are anticipating a stroll through the park have not ever done it.”
Marshall expects that emotion on Thursday, in part because of the circumstances. The Salukis are 2-1 since coach Barry Hinson delivered his much-publicized speech after a loss at Murry State. They dropped a 67-65 game at Miami (Ohio) on Sunday without Hinson, who took time off after the death of his son-in-law on Christmas.
“They’re going to rally around Coach Hinson, I’m sure,” he said.
Hinson returned to practice on Tuesday.
I think it was good for him to get back with the guys and get in the gym and back to doing what he enjoys doing,” associate head coach Tom Hankins said. “We didn't think he was coming back until (Wednesday). He's just at a point where he needed to get back in the gym, so he got back early.”
SIU lost to No. 25 Missouri and Saint Louis. Hankins calls the Shockers a different challenge.
“Playing those high-level teams definitely helped us get ready for these guys,” he said. “However, neither one of those teams — Mizzou's talented, but they're not as deep as these guys.”
Conference play is traditionally known as a time when scouting reports rule and familiarity slows the pace. Last season, WSU averaged 72 points in non-conference and NCAA Tournament games and 67.8 points against conference opponents. In VanVleet’s mind, that means execution become more important when defenses are ready for many plays.
The Shockers appear ready for that challenge with a team that averages 9.8 turnovers, fewest in the MVC, and leads the conference with a 1.4 assist-to-turnover ratio.
“Coaches know each other well and teams know each other well,” VanVleet said. “You don’t get to steal as many easy baskets.”
WSU needs one win to tie the school’s record for consecutive wins. Records like that don’t come easily and MVC schools will want no part of extending that streak.