Congratulations to the eight underlings in the Missouri Valley Conference for not mucking up the MVC Tournament.
Thanks, in particular, to Southern Illinois and Missouri State for not getting in the way of what everyone has been pointing to for weeks now.
The party that will be Wichita State-Illinois State Part III on Sunday afternoon for the Valley championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament will go on as scheduled.
WSU and Illinois State finished in a dead heat for the regular-season title at 17-1, eight games better than any other team in this league. It would have been a travesty for this thing to culminate with anything other than the Shockers and Redbirds in a Sunday showdown.
Illilnois State took care of SIU on Saturday, 63-50, building a big early lead and cruising. The Shockers fell behind Missouri State early, 9-0, but shot themselves back into the game and won 78-63.
The Valley, 3 through 10, is a disaster.
But Wichita State and Illinois State are disaster relief, shining stars in a galaxy of flameouts.
The Redbirds handled WSU in Normal, Ill., on Jan. 14, 76-62. The Shockers shot only 34.9 percent, made 7 of 21 three-pointers and had an all-around terrible night.
But they haven’t lost since and take a 14-game winning streak into Sunday’s games. One of those victories was an 86-45 shellacking of Illinois State on Feb. 4, when the Shockers shot 57 percent and held the Redbirds down, down, down.
What does Part III hold?
“I have no idea,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “It’s two good teams going at it. I don’t coach their team, I can only game-plan for my team. They’ve got talented guys. They’ve got size. They’ve got athleticism and skill. We have the same.”
Throw in the intrigue of what happens to the team that loses Sunday’s game — will the NCAA Tournament selection committee do the right thing and take them both? — and you’ve got a recipe for an exciting Sunday. It also doesn’t hurt that the Redbirds and Shockers — mostly Marshall and ISU coach Dan Muller — aren’t likely to get together to chow down at Buffalo Wild Wings after Sunday’s game.
The Redbirds knocked Wichita State out of the Valley tournament in the semifinals two years ago. WSU went on to get to the NCAAs, but that defeat, and one last year in the semis to Northern Iowa, feeds the notion that the Shockers are mostly a lost cause in this tournament.
They’ve won it only once since the tourney moved here in 1991. Marshall has created a Valley juggernaut that ceases juggernauting in this city.
And while the rest of the teams in the conference have been nothing more than fodder for the Shockers and Redbirds, there’s no telling how Sunday goes.
Illinois State is a better team than the one that crashed and burned in Wichita. Forward MiKyle McIntosh is back and healthy and provides balance to the Redbirds’ offense. An offense that did manage only 20 points in the second half Saturday against SIU, by the way. But Illinois State did score 43 in building a 23-point halftime lead.
Wichita State is rolling.
The Shockers still play Marshall’s trademark defense, although perhaps a tick or two below the efficiency from years past.
Marshall, though, has never coached a better offensive team or one with as many weapons.
WSU can afford it when one of its big guns, in Saturday’s case Landry Shamet, goes quiet. That just means more noise-making for the rest.
Shamet, who had 23 points a week ago against Missouri State, scored three points Saturday. But Shaq Morris had 21, Conner Frankamp had 18 and Markis McDuffie had 15. Plug one leak and prepare for a gusher to break through somewhere else.
Frankamp was about eight inches off making all 14 of his shots Saturday. He missed eight, though, by about an inch.
The 6-8 Morris, who has always looked like former Louisville great Wes Unseld and is starting to play like him, went to work in the middle and at the free-throw line, making 9 of 10 attempts. He also had seven rebounds.
And it was a McDuffie second-half flurry — eight points in less than two minutes — that helped the Shockers pull away from a five-point lead to a 10-point advantage, 55-45.
All of these shooters and ways to score make Wichita State so entertaining. And so dangerous.
Illinois State, though, is a threat. The Redbirds won’t back down against Wichita State, even though they were on the wrong end of an 86-45 game the last time the two teams met.
These teams are brash with confident, skilled players. There are high stakes, although can we agree that an NCAA Tournament without either one of these teams will be a lesser tournament.
It could turn out to be that the only importance of Sunday’s championship game is for bragging rights. But with these two, that’s important enough. The tip can’t get here soon enough.