During the first half Tuesday night at Koch Arena, I was admiring how focused and tenacious the Wichita State basketball team was against Loyola.
The Shockers, I thought to myself, never take a possession off. Not even against inferior competition, which could be the nickname this season for the Missouri Valley Conference.
Then the second half happened. And everything to admire about the Shockers earlier flew out the window.
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They played an abysmal second half, managing 21 points and shooting 23 percent.
Wichita State still won, 57-45. But it didn’t feel like a win, especially to coach Gregg Marshall.
“I’m glad that one’s over,” he told reporters. “It was a painful second half.”
Even at 22-0 and ranked fourth, WSU isn’t great all the time. But the Shockers have never been as bad this season as they were in the last 20 minutes against Loyola, which was making its first trip to Wichita since 1974.
It was strange. Outside of senior forward Cleanthony Early, who continued his hot streak of games with 23 points, WSU played like just another Valley team rather than the one that has dominated the conference from the start.
“It caught us off-guard,” sophomore point guard Fred VanVleet said of the Shockers’ second half. “Once it happened, we weren’t ever able to overcome it. Usually when things start to go bad, we’re able to turn it around pretty quickly. We’re disappointed with ourselves.”
Marshall was disappointed, too. He said what was to be a light practice day Wednesday will be pretty much the opposite of light.
“We’ll get after it a little bit and try to execute better than we did tonight,” Marshall said. “We’ll try not to throw our outlet passes to the 4-man. It was an endless stream of gaffes tonight, but give Loyola credit. We did not show any killer instinct tonight.”
Truth be told, the Shockers’ putrid play in the second half isn’t a bad thing. They won, first of all. And as they get ready to start February — the dog days of the college basketball season — Marshall and his coaching staff need this team’s attention. They need a teaching moment and the Shockers provided one without losing.
It could turn out to be the best of both worlds.
After a Saturday home game against Evansville, the poor saps who will encounter an angry mob of Shockers, Wichita State goes on the road to play Indiana State next Wednesday.
If there’s a game on the remainder of the Valley schedule that looks the least bit ominous, it’s that one. Yes, WSU blew out the Sycamores by 20 earlier this month at Koch Arena.
Indiana State’s pride will be on the line next week. Word out of Terre Haute is that it’s already impossible to get a ticket for that game and it hasn’t been impossible to get an Indiana State ticket in decades.
Every team needs to reboot at least once. Every coach likes to have a team’s attention.
The Shockers aren’t invincible and it was probably time for a friendly reminder of such.
There have been games — stretches of games, really — where Marshall could have just sat on the bench twiddling his thumbs. Wichita State has been that much better than the rest of the Valley.
Now, though, it’s time to get back to work. Marshall will be able to use Tuesday night’s second half in many ways. And he’s such a wily, resourceful coach that he’ll find ways nobody else has thought of.
“It’s all right,” said VanVleet, acknowledging that practice in the wake of the Loyola game will be as intense as any the Shockers have had this season. “Whatever we get for practice (Wednesday) will make us better.”
It’s important for any team — even one that is unbeaten — to recognize that it can be better. Combine 21-0, an 18-point halftime lead and an inferior Loyola team and you have a recipe for exactly what happened during the second half Tuesday.
The Shockers were awful. Terrible. Unbecoming of their unbeaten record.
But they needed this. Their coach needed this.
If all goes according to plan, WSU will be a tightly focused team Saturday against Evansville and ready to hit the road next week for Indiana State and Northern Iowa.
Instead of being the beginning of some unforeseen slump, Tuesday’s second half was something this team will learn from. And get better from.