Maybe in the Big East or the Big 12 or one of the other college basketball power conferences you can get away with a mulligan like Wichita State had Tuesday night at Koch Arena in losing to Southern Illinois.
But not in the Missouri Valley Conference. Not when your league looks more and more like a one-bid league, with only the automatic qualifier getting an invitation to the NCAA Tournament.
Last season, I said WSU’s loss at Evansville, which was winless in conference play at the time, was one of the worst in Shocker history because of its implications. I stand by that statement; Wichita State missed the NCAA Tournament despite winning 25 games.
Well, Tuesday’s loss to a team whose wheels were coming off and had three players, two of them starters, missing because of a suspension has the potential to be just as damaging.
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On a day when WSU rose to No. 27 in the Associated Press rankings, the Shockers suffered another inexplicable defeat, this time on its home floor. The Shockers’ three Valley losses all have come at Koch Arena, but none was as ugly or difficult to explain as the one to SIU, which lost to Bradley over the weekend and was showered with boos by a shrinking number of fans who have grown sick of the Salukis’ charade.
But Southern Illinois pulled it together for one night. Give Coach Chris Lowery credit. He’s been under heavy fire for the demise of what used to be one of the Valley’s most dominant programs. Tuesday night, he went to battle with a depleted army but his group found a way to win by sticking it to the Shockers defensively.
WSU never got into rhythm offensively. It was a jumbled mess from the start. But the Shocks kept fooling themselves, thinking it was just a matter of time. Who in that building thought Wichita State wouldn’t figure it out and sweep away SIU the way the Shockers did in a game at Carbondale against the Salukis a couple of weeks ago?
But it never happened and suddenly it’s head-scratching time at Wichita State, which goes on the road to play a wounded Northern Iowa team on Saturday night, then goes to Evansville, the hottest team in the Valley, on Tuesday before returning home for a Bracket Busters game against a very good Virginia Commonwealth team a week from Friday.
Is a four-game losing streak out of the question?
We had all started to think that Wichita State was beyond losing a game like this. The Shockers played a team Tuesday night that had lost five games in a row and was 2-7 on the road. I can’t believe there was a player on the Salukis who thought getting off the bus in Wichita was a good idea.
Yet the Shockers didn’t land any blows. All it would have taken was a couple of rights to the jaw and SIU would have gone down. But Wichita State was lazy all night long. There was no energy in Koch Arena, where 7,000 fans braved a horrible night to go support the home team. And the Shockers gift wrapped an egg for each one of them.
Inexcusable. And that’s not a slap at Southern Illinois, which earned the win. There was nothing flukish about the Salukis’ victory. They were the best team. They made the best players. They were tougher, more resilient and coached better.
The Shockers again were a mess down the stretch. They forced some things to happen to give them a couple of chances, but looked bad in late-game situations. The last possession was a disaster and I was surprised WSU coach Gregg Marshall didn’t hold on to one timeout to set up something that would have at least gotten the Shockers a better shot. But he used his final timeout to set up full-court defensive pressure.
Ben Smith, who has been playing great, picked a bad night for a bad game, going 1 for 7 and missing all four of his three-pointers.
David Kyles was 1 of 8 and 0 of 4 from the three-point line. I’m not sure why he was out there at the finish.
And Garrett Stutz, who also had been doing good things, was a non-factor against SIU.
To emphasize just how much the Salukis had been struggling, I’m including a column written by “Southern Illinoisan” sports editor Lee Winkeler after SIU’s home loss to Drake on Feb. 2. It’s interesting to read about the kind of disarray surrounding the Southern Illinois program. And it makes Wichita State’s loss to the Salukis that much more difficult to understand.
Here is Winkeler’s piece:
I’m a patient person.
I can endure 23 games of inexplicably poor entry passes. I can endure defenders getting beat on the baseline night after night. I can even endure three-second and shot clock violations.
There are, however, two things that are inexcusable – lack of effort and bad behavior by student-athletes. When those two happen in tandem, it’s time to take a long, hard look at what is happening at the SIU Arena.
Seriously, that’s a modest baseline when you are receiving a free education and thousands of fans shell out their hard-earned dollars to watch you play a dozen times a year.
The Salukis, save Mamadou Seck, Carlton Fay and isolated shifts by another player or two, gave little to no effort in Wednesday’s shameful loss to Drake. Losing to Drake, or Creighton, Wichita State, or UNI in the Arena used to be unthinkable.
Now, it’s largely expected.
And, that still really wouldn’t be a cause for anger if one thought the team was putting forth an effort.
Lack of effort was never more apparent than the Drake debacle. Boos rained down on players and coaches Wednesday night. And, we’re not talking about isolated boos.
Dissatisfaction has been bubbling below the surface over the state of the basketball program for the past 24 months. That dissatisfaction reached the boiling point when the Salukis sleep-walked through the Drake loss.
I’ve been a regular in the SIU Arena since 1972. I haven’t heard booing like that since Rich Herrin took over a devastated program in 1985.
Herrin put together a rag-tag group that first year. Somehow the team won eight games. If there were boos in those days, I don’t remember them. Although not talented, that group was motivated – something that seems almost anachronistic now.
As an SIU alum, I was hoping the Drake loss represented rock bottom. Who would have thought I set my expectations too high?
On Friday we learn that Mykel Cleveland, Troy Long and Gene Teague were suspended for three games for an on-campus incident.
There was a time, not too many years ago, that SIU players spoke of their teammates as family. Those days are long gone, unless of course you classify the family as dysfunctional. Family members don’t let each other down like that.
To make things even worse, this incident occurred on Hall of Fame weekend. Doesn’t it make you proud?
There were times this year I was heartened by the product on the floor. The team seemed to be giving more effort. The horrible shot selection that plagued the team last year improved dramatically.
Yet, any positive strides made by the team were flushed away in the past three weeks.
The issues surrounding the team are, apparently, systemic. There needs to be some serious soul-searching, as well as external review, of the entire program.
Everyone involved with the program bears responsibility for the current state of affairs. And, the current state of affairs is deplorable – on and off the floor.