▪ Wichita State went 18-2 against MVC competition this season, losing to second-place Northern Iowa and fourth-place Illinois State. Northern Iowa went 19-2, losing to first-place WSU and fifth-place Evansville.
WSU (28-4) played a tougher schedule. UNI (30-3) owns the better non-conference wins over Iowa and Stephen F. Austin.
That’s about an even split between two teams that are basically equals.
WSU won the regular-season title, which is the more impressive of the two available titles and UNI won the tournament, also a nice piece of hardware. That split seems a fitting representation of how the season played out.
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It will be a disappointment if both lose their opening NCAA games. Both are capable of winning that second game, as well, but I don’t see it as a guarantee. I’m 50-50 on their chances of advancing to the Sweet 16. Both are good enough to have a chance. Neither is dominant enough where I see it with overwhelming confidence. There will be about 20 teams in the field who probably feel the same way.
Saturday’s loss to Illinois State didn’t change that theme. However, it does appear the Redbirds stand at least a fair chance of being the preseason favorite in 2015-16. In the big picture, a stronger MVC is good for WSU and at least two schools are pushing back against the notion of WSU dominance.
WSU will be very good again, despite the loss of Tekele Cotton and Darius Carter. The front-court either needs help or dramatic improvement by current players and that will be the question for next season. Before the 2013-14 season, I would have said no team with Chadrack Lufile starting at center would be ranked in the top 10. The coaching staff turned Lufile into a better player than I thought possible. Can they do that with Shaq Morris, Bush Wamukota and Rauno Nurger? We will see.
The Redbirds lose Daishon Knight, Bobby Hunter and John Jones and return four starters and seven of their top nine scorers. That will represent more continuity than coach Dan Muller enjoyed in his previous seasons.
At a minimum, the choice will require some thought, unlike the past two seasons.
▪ The week off, or at a reduced pace, should be good for the Shockers. They looked like a team that put everything it had into keeping pace with Northern Iowa for 18 games and winning that final home game.
Coach Gregg Marshall said he was diagnosed with pneumonia and a sick coach can sap a team of energy and resolve in ways that are hard to explain. We’re not talking about that if the Shockers make a few more three-pointers, but they will be happy to get Marshall in better health for the next game.
▪ Saturday’s loss will likely make escaping the NCAA’s first weekend tougher. Neutral-court games against good teams are basically coin flips and the Shockers are now looking at a second-day game against a No. 4 seed or worse in most scenarios. Should they fall all the way to a No. 7 seed, it gets worse and, as 2012 showed, the life of a No. 5 seed is no bargain.
WSU remains capable of advancing because its guards are excellent and the last four seasons prove it is good in post-season play. Historically, the big difference is between earning a No. 3 or No. 4 seed (they win 85 and 79 percent of their opening games) and earning a No. 5, No. 6 or No. 7 (they win 63, 65, and 60 percent). From 1979-2014, No. 12 seeds are 78-140 (32.3 percent). No. 13 seeds are 31-120 (.211).
The difference between a No. 4 and No. 5 is significant. In the past five seasons (ignoring First Four games), No. 13 seeds are 6-20 in the tournament with two schools (LaSalle, Ohio) in the Sweet 16. No. 12 seeds are 13-20 with three Sweet 16s (Oregon, Richmond, Cornell).
▪ Cotton went 2 for 9 from three-point range in St. Louis; Evan Wessel 1 of 3. Carter scored 12 points and grabbed seven rebounds in two games. WSU’s NCAA stay will be short if those three are not more productive.
It’s easy to say a team with good big men is WSU’s nightmare matchup, because that’s true for every team. Carter reminds me of Kyle Wilson in 2006-07 — a good power forward forced to play center where his best skills are dampened by matchup problems with bigger players. Carter has big games against physical teams on his resume — 11 points and 14 rebounds against Tennessee, 9 and 7 against Alabama, 16 and 12 against Seton Hall, 16 and 6 against Alabama, 25 points against Evansville. At 6-foot-7, 245 pounds, there are going to be teams that can make it difficult for him to score, avoid fouls and defend.
Zone defenses by George Washington and Illinois State gave the Shockers problems, in part because those are two good basketball teams. The Shockers are at their best against a zone when Ron Baker gets to the foul line and can break down the defense with his passing. Unfortunately, putting Baker in that spot removes WSU’s best shooter from the perimeter.
Add in the fact Baker is a significantly better shooter at Koch Arena (49.4 percent from three) as compared to road (33.8) and neutral (26.7) games and the problem grows when staring at more games away from Koch Arena. Most players shoot better at home and Baker’s career splits (41 percent home/36.8 road/34.3 neutral) aren’t as dramatic. Last season, he shot better on the road (41.7) than at home (34.5), so this season’s performance may not be the product of a different offensive team and the schedule.
Will WSU face more zones? Hard to say. Some coaches won’t change their defensive approach significantly, at least not until forced to. If you don’t run a zone right, it’s a disaster and the Shockers are quite capable of crashing the boards for offensive rebounds, as they did against Illinois State.
▪ I wish I could see a better angle on the steal-turned-foul by Fred VanVleet with 6:25 to play and WSU down 48-46. VanVleet took the ball from Illinois State’s DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell and headed for a basket with nobody in his way. Then John Higgins blew his whistle. Marshall dropped to his knees in disbelief. The replay makes it hard for me to tell what happened.
▪ The MVC Tournament drew 50,187 for its entire run, passing 50,000 for the 13th straight season.
That is down dramatically from recent seasons and we all know why. The tournament drew 85,074 in 2007 and 71,029 for the 2013 Creighton-WSU fueled drama. Last season’s tournament drew 50,989.
Saturday’s title game drew 13,552, fifth-largest in the event’s history and more than last season’s 12,125 for WSU-Indiana State.
Creighton’s departure is a killer. The tournament depends on Southern Illinois, Illinois State, Bradley and Missouri State and three of those schools are in the dumps.
▪ Loyola has won as many tournament games (two) in its two seasons as member as Evansville has since 2007 (2-9). No wonder Aces fans don’t turn out.
Kudos to the Ramblers, who are making good headway in their time as an MVC member. Their win over Indiana State on Friday featured some impressive stretches and it will be interesting to see what kind of talent coach Porter Moser can add.