Wichita State plays a ranked team Wednesday night, the Utah Utes, in Salt Lake City. This one feels special because it is; the Shockers, ranked No. 8, are on the road to play a ranked team – Utah is No. 25 – in a hostile environment.
This game could be close.
The Shockers (4-0) have won 39 of their last 40 games. Thirty-three have been by double digits. The average margin of victory is 17 points, and only three have been by five points or fewer.
The one loss during this stretch, against Kentucky in the third round of the NCAA Tournament, was a wire-to-wire thriller that ended in a two-point Wildcats win.
But wire-to-wire thrillers aren’t commonplace for the Shockers lately.
They’ve started this season with 17-, 15-, 48- and 20-point wins over New Mexico State, Memphis, Newman and Tulsa. It’s not supposed to be this easy.
Three of those victims played in the NCAA Tournament last season. None are Duke or Kentucky, but Wichita State has blown out good teams, too, the past couple of seasons.
Are the Shockers so good that they’re in danger of becoming boring?
Certainly, Koch Arena hasn’t been rocking the way it has in the past because most games there haven’t been rock-worthy. That doesn’t mean enthusiasm for the Shockers isn’t at an all-time high. It’s just that the games haven’t been matching the enthusiasm.
WSU fans want to get crazy. But how crazy can you get when your team is up by 20 at halftime?
Last season, the Shockers endured some rocky first halves only to turn up the intensity and the performance in the second halves. But in this season’s four wins, the games have been decided early.
Tulsa did mount a quasi-rally on Saturday, cutting a 23-point deficit to 10 midway through the second half. A few fans might have squirmed, but there was no chance the Hurricane was going to get much closer. The Shockers got a handle on things and won 75-55.
We’re witnessing an incredible run by an incredible team. Wichita State has earned its No. 8 ranking and has as good a chance as almost anyone – with perhaps the exception of Kentucky – to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
Until then, there are potentially 29 games to play. How many will be close?
The game Wednesday night should be. Utah’s only loss was to No. 13 San Diego State, 53-49. But the Utes don’t yet have an impressive win; they’ve beaten Ball State, UC Riverside, Texas-Pan American, North Dakota and Alabama State.
The Utes have interesting players, including 6-foot-5 senior Delon Wright, an All-Pac-12 player last season. Wright, the younger brother of 10-year NBA veteran Dorell Wright, is averaging 15.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists. The Shockers haven’t seen a player like Wright this season.
I’m also curious about Utah 7-foot freshman Jakob Poeltl, an Austrian who is averaging 12 points and 9.3 rebounds. It’ll be interesting to see how WSU’s Darius Carter matches up against Poeltl.
Because the Shockers have had such few close calls recently, the game against Utah feels big. After last season’s 35-0 run leading up to the Kentucky game, I’m often asked how deep Wichita State can go into this season without a loss.
The Utah game has given me pause for a while now. The Utes were 21-12 last season (18-2 at home) and returned most of their key players. They also added an outstanding recruiting class led by four-star forwards Brekkott Chapman and Kyle Kuzma, along with Poeltl.
The Shockers need a test every now and then. It’s good for them.
Consider that the 33 double-digit wins in the last 39 victories are just six fewer than the Shockers had during a seven-season, 198-game stretch from 1989-90 through 1995-96, during which they were 72-126. In those days Wichita State was thrilled to get a victory, whatever the margin.
Last season, WSU swept through 21 Missouri Valley Conference games, including the tournament, and won them by an average of 15.8 points. If conference play is designed to push teams, the Valley needs more teams with sturdy backs.
Honestly, it’s hard to see the challenges this season for Wichita State, too. There are some intriguing games left against non-conference teams Saint Louis, Seton Hall, Detroit and Alabama. The Shockers will be comfortable favorites in all, though.
Is the Valley markedly better than last season? Early signs are that unbeaten Northern Iowa could be the real deal. After that, though, there hasn’t been a lot to get excited about.
The Shockers have exploded while few teams around them have even had their fuses lit. It’s made for some remarkably one-sided basketball.
Maybe it’ll be different Wednesday night at Utah. Deep down, I think even Shocker fans are hoping for a close one just to remember what it’s like.