You call TV color man Mark Adams, the most enthusiastic advocate for the Missouri Valley Conference with a microphone, determined to bring him down. (Is he more enthusiastic than Mitch Holthus? Tough to say. Both can make you believe that they believe the Evansville-Bradley game is epic stuff.)
Surely, you ask, Wichita State is due for a bad game. Surely, an opponent is going to expose weaknesses hidden the past two months. This dream date with college basketball history can’t continue.
Adams is the wrong guy to call. Adams, as fans who follow the conference know, loves the Shockers, loves guard Fred VanVleet and loves the MVC. He compares the Shockers to 1979 Indiana State because of its margin of victory. He sees the Shockers doing what Butler did in 2010 by going 18-0 in the Horizon League on its way to the NCAA title game.
“I believed Wichita State could win the national championship (in November) and they’ve done nothing to make me back off,” said Adams, who calls the MVC (and other conferences) for ESPN and Fox Sports.
Adams, a former coach at Central Connecticut State and Washington State, does look at the game through those eyes. He wonders why teams didn’t try to junk it up against the Shockers and try unusual defenses, like guarding VanVleet and Ron Baker man-to-man and playing three defenders in a zone.
Why not? The tradtional stuff didn’t work.
He wonders what might happen if a team can tire out VanVleet, denying him the ball and forcing him to work against a series of physical defenders. Perhaps that pays off late in the game. He stands by his assertion that VanVleet is the nation’s best point guard, while knowing that fatigue could be a factor since WSU lacks a true backup.
“Don’t let (VanVleet) catch it,” he said. “That creates a change for Wichita State because the ball’s been in his hands all year. Take a guy or two out of the flow.”
Despite Adams’ belief in the Shockers, the reality is that beating talented, well-coached teams on neutral courts is difficult. Great teams lose each season in disappointing fashion. The end comes quickly in March, as Gonzaga, Pittsburgh, Kansas, Kentucky and Stanford (all recent No. 1 seeds eliminated the first weekend) can attest.
Should the Shockers stumble on their way to Texas, it might happen this way:• WSU’s big men are new to this stage and will soon face teams with equal, or better, size and depth in the post. Kadeem Coleby redshirted last season. Darius Carter played in junior college. Chadrack Lufile didn’t play more than six minutes in any of last season’s NCAA games.
Lufile started 11 games this season and averaged 16.6 minutes.
“Experience is the teacher of everything,” Lufile said. “I’m ready to show the world my talents. The more opportunities you get to show what you’ve got, the more positives you get out of it.”
Carter averaged 8.1 points and is WSU’s best scoring threat in the post. He makes 53.1 percent of his shots and finished the season by scoring double figures in five of his final seven regular-season games.
“I’ve improved a lot with the physical play of this level of basketball,” he said. “I’ve become more patient with my post moves.”
Carter played well against two of the biggest teams — Tennessee and Alabama — faced by WSU. He had 11 points and 14 rebounds against the Volunteers and nine and seven against the Crimson Tide.
“We’ve been prepared,” he said. “It’s just about our willingess to go out there and battle with bigger guys. I think we’re very capable of doing that.”
WSU’s depth comforts Adams. He sees 15 fouls and three players who can rebound and defend well enough to keep the Shockers competitive in the lane.
“If one guy’s not going well, you’ve got to figure one of the others will,” he said. “Nobody has the level of depth that they have at the (center) position. They’re all physically strong enough. All of them are capable of blocking shots.”• Foul trouble or an injury by VanVleet could be devastating. When he sits, Baker (and sometimes Cotton) run the offense and both are capable. It works for short periods, but it’s not ideal.
Through 34 games, it hasn’t been a problem. VanVleet averages a reasonable 31.7 minutes and fewer than two fouls.• The Shockers enter the NCAA Tournament after playing 21 straight games against MVC competition, none of whom came close to earning an NCAA at-large bid. It hasn’t played a top-50 RPI team since Dec. 14 against Tennessee.
After Friday, the competition steps up significantly.
“I feel like the Valley schedule prepared us,” senior Cleanthony Early said. “I feel like Coach (Gregg) Marshall prepared us. How will we prepare ourselves? We will use everything as motivation.”
The Shockers always say practices are harder than games. In recent weeks, the coaches used the lure of shorter practices to insure maximum effort in those sessions. The Shockers hope facing each other can make up for areas in which MVC teams didn’t challenge them.
“We prepare in practice,” VanVleet said. “When the ball is tipped up, it’s about playing the game and the schedule is out the window. The Valley was challenging enough last year. Nothing caught us by surprise. I feel the same confidence going forward.”
So does Adams.
“They got a tough draw, but everybody has a tough draw,” Adams said. “They’ve blown people out. They’ve never played down to the competition. I think that’s a good sign going into the NCAA Tournament.”