The Missouri Valley Conference grabs an opportunity to play on CBS in early March. Then its tournament champion waits while most of college basketball gathers to settle neighborhood scores one more time.
No. 2 Wichita State knows how to enjoy this week off from outside competition. The Shockers won the MVC Tournament on Sunday. They took Monday off from practice, although the coaches came to the office to plan and watch video. Later this week, things get serious.
“I’ll get to actually watch some basketball for a change,” WSU guard Ron Baker said.
The Shockers (34-0) can watch conference tournaments in the SEC, Big 12, ACC and others this weekend with an eye on their competition. When Florida, Arizona, Kansas, Villanova and others play, the Shockers can evaluate the teams that will join them as contenders for the NCAA title.
“When we're watching the games, it makes us want to play,” guard Fred VanVleet said. “It'll be nice for us just to just appreciate the moment and relax some.”
The bracket is announced on Sunday and analysts such as Joe Lunardi of ESPN and Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com expect WSU to grab a No. 1 seed, joining Indiana State in 1979 as the only MVC schools atop a regional bracket.
That will give the Shockers a normally easy win over a No. 16 seed (Lunardi predicts a matchup with either Alabama State or Wofford) before a pressure-packed game against either No. 8 or No. 9. In Lunardi’s latest projection, it’s either Kansas State or SMU.
“It’s been a long conference season, and it’s nice to get some new competition,” Baker said. “We’ll see how we handle it then.”
When the Shockers resume work, practices will be short and intense, as they usually are late in the season. Without the MVC offering as many challenges as in past seasons, coaches used shorter practices as a reward to encourage the Shockers to work at max effort during the 90 minutes or so they’re in the gym. Without an opponent to consider, the focus will be on skills development and perfecting the system that produced college basketball’s first perfect pre-NCAA record since UNLV in 1991.
“We’ll work on us,” associate head coach Chris Jans said.
Any work on specific NCAA opponents will wait until after the selection show. The Shockers will look at their approaches to, for example, zone defenses to prepare for what might be next.
“We’ll watch film, watch film of this game,” Baker said after the MVC clincher. “We’ll work on things we might see in the tournament, different defenses, different offenses.”
The lighter workload is welcomed after 21 games against MVC competition. The Shockers played at least twice a week since January. In February, the MVC schedule gave them two sets of back-to-back road trips. Since Feb. 16, the Shockers played six of their eight games away from Koch Arena.
“Rest, practice,” senior post Chadrack Lufile said. “It’s more mental than anything.”
On Sunday, WSU may find itself headed back to St. Louis for the second and third round of the Midwest Regional. That would be fine with coach Gregg Marshall, whose fondness for the city is growing after Sunday’s 83-69 win over Indiana State at the Scottrade Center. The NCAA games are played in the same arena and there is a chance the Shockers could return to the same hotel.
From St. Louis, the path could take the Shockers to Indianapolis for the regional semifinal and final before heading south to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, for the Final Four.
If good memories mean anything, Marshall is eager to return to the hockey arena near downtown St. Louis in which WSU has won three straight games while shooting 48.5 percent.
“It would be something we’re comfortable with,” Marshall said. “I think Shocker Nation travels pretty well. I think there would be quite a number of yellow-and-black-clad fans in the stands.”
No matter where the NCAA assigns WSU, the goal is the same.
“If you keep winning the next game, you end up cutting down nets,” junior Tekele Cotton said.
VanVleet is the first Shocker to earn national honors since the Associated Press gave center Paul Miller honorable-mention status in 2006. VanVleet, the MVC Player of the Year, averages 12.1 points and 5.3 assists. He is a finalist for the Bob Cousy Collegiate Point Guard of the Year Award and the Naismith Award for player of the year.
Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins was named to the second team.