▪ The post-Hawaii reaction reminds me of covering a weekend baseball series when a team wins the first two and loses the third game. It gets on the bus frustrated, despite a good weekend, because of a bad last impression and a missed opportunity. Drake appears to be a good get-well game. The Bulldogs are one of the nation’s worst defensive teams, ranking in the bottom third (or worse) of almost every kenpom.com defensive statistic.
WSU’s defense also needs some attention. Teams are shooting accurately against the Shockers (50.8 percent when adjusted for three-pointers, No. 247 nationally according to kenpom.com). WSU survives, and its defense remains effective overall, because it forces turnovers and rebounds so well it usually gets more shots than its opponent. In seven of the past nine games, opponents have made 35 percent or better from three-point range and five went for 40 percent or better.
Those are not numbers we are used to seeing from WSU.
WSU coach Gregg Marshall said he grades his non-conference performance an A-minus or B-plus. That would be a bit high in the minds of some fans I’m hearing from. Backing Marshall’s grade is an excellent RPI (No. 8), strong kenpom.com ranking (No. 13) compiled against a good schedule (No. 42 by kenpom.com, No. 7 by warrennolan.com and No. 28 by ESPN.com.
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So WSU has work to do, on both ends, after a loss to George Washington and close calls against Alabama and Hawaii. Its margin of error is not as great as last season, when it entered the gym with an NBA player and three other seniors. It looks more like an MVC team, a very good MVC team, but an MVC team with lots of talented young players. The good news from Hawaii is that those freshmen made steps toward more production.
It is worth noting that WSU played the past three games without injured starter Evan Wessel.
“The naysayers and the guys that are a little worried about our team are comparing it to last year’s team,” Marshall said. “Which I think is a bad idea. I’ll say it nicely. Last year’s team was a once-in-a-generation, maybe less than that, type of run. It’s not going to happen. If you thought it was going to happen with that schedule, you probably believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.”
▪ Drake is also one of the nation’s most-frequent turnover teams, as around 23 percent of their possessions end with a turnover. That should lead to layups, dunks and open threes for the Shockers. Drake has 147 assists and 188 turnovers. It has forced 127 turnovers.
▪ Judging the MVC is a little tricky. In an overall sense, it is disappointing because four schools (Drake, Bradley, Indiana State and Southern Illinois) are ranked No. 278 or lower in the RPI.
The SWAC has four teams 278 or lower.
That should never happen in a conference that values basketball and it’s a combination of miserable scheduling, bad luck, miserable play and injuries. Drake gets a bit of a pass because coach Ray Giacoletti is in his second season and essentially starting over after losing three senior starters. Bradley, Indiana State and SIU are in various stages of rebuilding, so they don’t need to be top 100 teams. They can’t fall this far.
On the other hand, Northern Iowa is in great shape to earn an at-large bid. If the Valley gets two NCAA Tournament teams, the season can be judged a success. Loyola is a present surprise and Evansville is making the hoped-for improvement.
While last season’s 35-0 run was fun for the Shockers, it’s better in the big picture if the MVC improves.
“Without a doubt,” Marshall said. “I’m going to try to get in touch with (UNI coach Ben Jacobson) and just congratulate him on a wonderful pre-conference. If both of us play well in the conference, and keep our losses to a minimum … we’re setting ourselves up for multi-bids. I’m happy for them. I’m happy for Loyola and Porter Moser. I’m happy for Evansville.”
The Shockers bring a 21-game MVC win streak (counting the tournament) into this season.
“This is going to be a tough conference,” Marshall said. “Those same people that expected us to go undefeated in the non-conference, if they’re expecting us to go undefeated in the conference, I would beg you to temper those expectations. It’s going to be a great race.”
▪ This is a good time to look back at the 2001 MVC season, when Mark Turgeon took over a failing program. At that point, WSU trailed the series with SIU, Illinois State, Missouri State, Evansville and Bradley. WSU now leads the series with Illinois State, MSU and Evansville, while maintaining its leads over Drake and Indiana State. Its deficit vs. Bradley, 18 games in 2001, is down to 70-65. UNI trailed WSU 10-9 in 2001. It leads 25-24. SIU extended its lead from 31-29 to 48-40.