Wichita State didn’t play great Wednesday night against Loyola. The thing is, though, the Shockers don’t always have to play great to win games in the Missouri Valley Conference.
They have Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton and no other team does.
They play defense like no other team does.
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The offense can come and go, as it did during the 58-47 win over Loyola. Not every win is a masterpiece. But when you have 19 wins, against only two losses, how worked up can you really get about a sub-par offensive game?
It’s Gregg Marshall’s job to get worked up. He didn’t like a lot of what he saw Wednesday and said more than a couple of times after the game that if the Shockers replicate that performance Saturday afternoon at Northern Iowa, they’ll return from Cedar Falls with a loss.
Which, in fact, could happen. UNI has one loss in the Valley, is ranked No. 18 (the Shockers are No. 12) and pose a legitimate threat to Wichita State’s 27-game conference winning streak.
But don’t you think the Shockers will rise to that challenge they way they’ve risen to so many over the years? The McLeod Center will be rocking; this will be the biggest game the Panthers have played in a long time.
Wichita State, though, doesn’t acknowledge where games are being played. As Cotton said after Wednesday’s win, going on the road is fun for these guys. They welcome hostility and relish the targets on their backs.
It’s almost sure to be a low-scoring, punch/counter punch kind of game. Wichita State and Northern Iowa are the two best defensive teams in the country.
Northern Iowa has given up 50 points per game during an eight-game winning streak. The Shockers have allowed 47.4 points in their past seven.
Maybe they should double the size of the basket just to give the scorers a chance.
If it’s a defensive struggle, which appears likely, it’s difficult to imagine Northern Iowa getting an edge on the Shockers, even at home.
“Their guards, they just clamp down on you and take you out of things you’re trying to do,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said of WSU. “They kept denying our point guard the ball tonight and they just take you out of stuff. When they turn it up and lock on to you, they push you out of things.”
Loyola went 6 minutes, 7 seconds without a point during one stretch in the second half, during which the Shockers went on a 9-0 run. Moser undoubtedly saw a Wichita State team ripe to be upset Wednesday night, but also had to acknowledge that his team doesn’t have the firepower to pull something like that off.
Few teams do because of the way the Shockers defend.
Loyola shot 42.5 percent, not a horrible number. But the Ramblers struggled to find shots, often settling for something not to their liking at the end of the shot clock. Their 40 field-goal attempts were 14 fewer than Wichita State, helped by 16 offensive rebounds.
“There are some defenses that, as the game goes on, they start to settle in and maybe give up more,” Moser said. “But it seems like (Wichita State) is the opposite. As the game gets later, it’s even harder to score against them. And that wears you out as an offense.”
Wichita State has held four of its past seven opponents in the 40s. Overall, , 11 teams have scored in the 50s, five in the 60s and one in the 70s. But it took Hawaii overtime to get to 79 in a one-point loss to WSU in the Diamond Head Classic in late December.
Can you imagine? The Shockers have played 21 games and only one opponent has cracked 70?
“We don’t even really talk about it,” Marshall said. “But we if we give up 60 on Saturday, we probably lose.”
True, the Valley isn’t an offensive dynamo of a conference. The collective scoring average of the 10 MVC schools is 60.8 points in conference play. Four teams are shooting below 40 percent and the collective field-goal percentage is 42.9 percent.
But the Shockers are on a historic run of great defense.
Last season, when they were 35-0 before losing to Kentucky in the third round of the NCAA Tournament, WSU gave up fewer than 60 points in 17 of 36 games. That’s an incredible accomplishment.
This season, they’ve done that in 15 of 21.
A really good Northern Iowa team is next. The Shockers will show up. Especially their defense.