The Missouri Valley Conference’s No. 1 road show is on again, packing arenas, color-coding crowds and inspiring student sections.
No. 5 Wichita State plays at Drake on Saturday night and the Knapp Center (capacity 7,152) will draw its largest crowd of the season. On Friday, the Drake ticket office warns callers that reserved seats will likely sell out, leaving only general admission.
The Shockers (20-0, 7-0) are used to the attention. And they can’t say it doesn’t affect them. At Missouri State, they trailed by 18 at halftime. At Illinois State on Wednesday, they committed an unsightly 11 first-half turnovers and trailed 28-25. WSU won both and the players know the remaining road games will feature them as a potential season-defining, coaching-landmark, court-storming victory.
“It’s something we’ve got to get used to,” WSU guard Ron Baker said. “Everybody is filling their arena. Everybody wants to come watch us.”
WSU is 3-0 in MVC road games and each visit by a nationally ranked team increased attendance. At Southern Illinois, the 4,891 fans (hurt by students out on semester break) is the second-largest crowd of the season and best in MVC play. Missouri State drew 10,776 fans, more than double its season average and the third-largest crowd in JQH Arena’s six-season history. Illinois State drew 9,510 fans, most wearing red for a designated red-out promotion, and the most in the building since 2010. Its season average is 4,962.
Those three wins added to WSU’s resume as the nation’s top road team. It is 32-8 on the road since 2010-11, tops nationally in that span by winning percentage. Kansas (26-8) is second, followed by Syracuse (24-9) and Gonzaga (26-10).
The Shockers made uncharacteristic mistakes in the first half at Illinois State against the hyped-up Redbirds defense. Bad passes. Poor choices with dribble drives. They settled down in the second half and played their typical low-error game and won 70-55. The Shockers are talented enough to survive bad stretches and experienced enough to keep them rare. Most MVC teams aren’t dangerous enough to take full advantage of a low-ebb by the Shockers, as Illinois State showed. Despite WSU’s struggles, the Redbirds failed to build a significant lead in the first half.
“We didn’t recognize ourselves,” WSU senior Cleanthony Early said. “We were doing things we don’t normally do. We acknowledged the situation and when you want it really bad, you’re willing to adjust.”
Drake presents an historical challenge for the Shockers. WSU is 2-4 at the Knapp Center under Gregg Marshall with all the losses coming on a weekend when the Bulldogs drew larger crowds. In 2012, Drake handed WSU its only MVC road loss in front of a crowd of 4,895, about 1,000 above its season average. Last season, 2,792 came out to watch the Shockers handle Drake on a Wednesday.
“I anticipate a pretty festive atmosphere, like we’re going to get just about everywhere at this point,” Marshall said.
Drake (11-8, 2-5) snapped a five-game losing streak with Wednesday’s 57-54 win at Southern Illinois.
“We’ve all stuck together,” Drake coach Ray Giacoletti told reporters after the game. “You find out about people’s true colors with a little adversity.”
The Bulldogs lost starting guard Gary Ricks Jr., who averaged 12.3 points, after eight games with a broken foot. That puts more burden on senior Richard Carter, who averages 17.9 points and has scored 20-plus seven times.
“He can drive it and shoot it,” Marshall said. “He’s had some really big games, so you’ve got to be cognizant of him at all times.”