In a best-case scenario, Bradley needed a season of good health and good breaks to move into the top half of the Missouri Valley Conference.
This is the worst-case scenario, a situation so difficult that famously competitive Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall is moved to express pity for Braves coach Geno Ford.
“I feel for Geno,” Marshall said. “He hasn’t had a full roster since the summer. He’s got some young, talented players. You just don’t know what they would look like if they were all eligible and healthy.”
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No. 16 Wichita State (19-3, 9-1 Missouri Valley Conference) plays Bradley (7-16, 2-8) on Wednesday at Carver Arena. The Shockers will face a team so short-handed that short-handed is just the way things are in Peoria. When a game at Missouri State on Jan. 24 neared, it appeared Ford enjoyed a full roster for the first time this season. Center Mike Shaw got sick and played two minutes.
Last week’s suspensions of three players brought the season total to 32 games missed by players, 26 with injury and six due to suspension. Starting guards Warren Jones, the team’s top scorer, and Ka’Darryl Bell and reserve Omari Grier are the latest problems. Ford suspended them last week for an off-court legal issue. Grier, according to the Peoria Journal Star, will play against the Shockers.
“We’ve had some bad luck and we’ve shot ourselves in the foot at other times,” Ford said. “We’ve battled some immaturity. We’ve battled some other things.”
The result of all this turmoil is a spot in last place in the MVC and a likely spot in the play-in round of the MVC Tournament for a fifth straight season. Bradley has lost two in a row and and 7 of 8 mostly because it can’t make baskets. The Braves rank last in the MVC in shooting percentage (38.6) and ninth in three-point accuracy (32.7). They are also ninth in assists (9.6) and assist-to-turnover ratio (0.7).
On Saturday, the suspensions of Jones, Bell and Grier meant Ford didn’t have a player with shooting guard experience in a 64-58 loss at Indiana State. Those three juniors ranked among the team’s top six scorers, with Jones leading the roster at 13.9 points. According to the Peoria Journal Star, Jones was arrested last week after using Grier’s identification to enter a Peoria nightclub. Bell was with Jones. Grier was not at the club.
“When things aren’t going your way, you really have two choices,” Ford said. “You can get in the fetal position and pull the blanket up over your head. Or, you can pick yourself up and fight like crazy. It’s certainly my personality to do the second and I’m trying to get guys that will be in the same mindset.”
Bradley broke a five-game losing streak with a 61-59 win over Missouri State. It led Indiana State into the second half on Saturday before fading. Guard Tramique Sutherland scored 17 points and guard Anthony Field added a career-high 11.
“There’s still a month in the season left and the conference tournament is still eight games away,” Ford said. “We’ve just got to keep grinding. I thought we took a step forward on Saturday. Guys really fought and competed. If we can continue to do that, you’ll live with the results.”
While Peoria is an historically inhospitable place for the Shockers, recent history says Carver Arena is the ideal place to regroup after Saturday’s 70-54 loss at Northern Iowa. WSU’s 27-game MVC win streak, a modern-day record, ended in a shower of missed shots in its first double-digit loss since 2013.
In between that March 2, 2013 loss at Creighton (91-79) and Saturday’s 16-point loss at UNI, the Shockers compiled a 60-5 record with losses by a total of 16 points. The Shockers expressed no doubts about their ability to move on after a 30-game win streak against MVC schools, including the post-season tournament, ended.
“I’m not really into all of that (history) until I’m done playing,” WSU guard Fred VanVleet said. “I didn’t even know it was 30. Obviously, that’s a great mark to get to, but you just focus on the game and trying to win each game. That’s how you get to 30 in a row, just take them one at a time.”
The Shockers flopped in many areas against the Panthers. Senior forward Darius Carter played a mere 17 minutes, in part due to foul trouble and in part due to defensive problems against UNI’s Seth Tuttle. In his past three games, Carter is 8 of 20 from the field with 16 points and eight rebounds. He hasn’t played more than 20 minutes in the past four games, in part because of back spasms.
With the starters struggling to score, WSU’s lack of bench production became more glaring against UNI. Eight reserves combined to score seven points on 3-of-7 shooting with seven rebounds. Six of those points came from freshman center Shaq Morris,who played well despite foul trouble. Beyond Morris, Marshall couldn’t find reserves he trusted to play much more than a few minutes against UNI.
“It’s been awhile, almost 23 months (since losing a conference game),” Marshall said. “You don’t want to start a streak in the other way, that’s for sure. One loss can’t lead to a second loss.”
That seems unlikely against the Braves. The Shockers are the first school to win 10 in a row against Bradley, rolling up those wins by an average of 23.5 points. That is WSU’s most dominant stretch in a series led by Bradley 71-65.
No. 16 Wichita State at Bradley
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Carver Arena, Peoria, Ill.
Records: WSU 19-3, 9-1 MVC; BU 7-16, 2-8
Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM
TV: Cox 22
No. 16 Wichita State at Bradley
Wichita State (19-3, 9-1): WSU trailed Bradley 28-27 at halftime of the first meeting. The Shockers held the Braves to 4-of-22 shooting in the second half and outscored them 36-15 to win 63-43 at Koch Arena. Carter scored 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds. VanVleet handed out nine assists with one turnover. … Baker needs 20 points to become the 43rd Shocker to score 1,000 or more points. He would be the 14th Kansan on the list. … VanVleet is 11 of 26 from three-point range (42.3 percent) and 37 of 75 (49.3 percent) overall in 10 MVC games. His assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.0 trails Cotton (3.2) in conference play. … Freshman C Shaq Morris leads WSU with 12 blocks in MVC play. He is shooting 57.6 percent from the field in nine Valley games. … Foul shooting, a concern in non-conference play, improved over the past 10 games. WSU is shooting 70.4 percent in MVC play, bringing its season accuracy to 67.8 percent.
Bradley (7-16, 2-8): Bradley is 0-12 against ranked opponents since a 2010 win over No. 18 Northern Iowa. It is 1-12 at Carver Arena against ranked teams. … Cunningham ranks second in the MVC in rebounding and his total of 174 rebounds ranks fifth among all freshmen nationally. In MVC play, he averages 10.1 points and 9.0 rebounds. … Barnes and Sutherland both scored 10 points in the first meeting. G Ka’Darryl Bell, suspended for Wednesday’s game, led the Braves with 11. Also suspended is G Warren Jones, who did not play in the first meeting due to injury.
RPI as of Tuesday: WSU 12, BU 294.
All over in Illinois
Wichita State junior Fred VanVleet, a native of Rockford, Ill., is 19-1 against schools from Illinois and 7-1 in games played in the state. Southern Illinois handed him the lone loss, 64-62 in 2013.
▪ He is 5-0 as a starter in Illinois.
▪ He averages 14.4 points and 6.6 assists with a 6.6 assist-to-turnover ratio in those five games. He is 23 of 36 from the field, 7 of 12 from three-point range and 19 of 20 from the line.
▪ VanVleet set a career-high with 27 points in last week’s win over Loyola at Koch Arena. He set his previous high of 22 points four times, including against Loyola and Bradley. His career-highs of 10 assists came against Loyola and Illinois State.