ST. LOUIS — Wichitan Chris Dennis loves this city for many reasons — the Cardinals, the restaurants, the atmosphere at the Scottrade Center for the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
This weekend, Dennis and his sons will drive across Kansas and Missouri to watch the tournament for an eighth straight season and cheer for Wichita State's basketball team.
That part? It's hard to love.
"At some point, it's going to happen," Dennis said. The Shockers are due, and that's the best spin one can put on WSU's history in Arch Madness.
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Second-seeded WSU (23-8) plays seventh-seeded Missouri State (20-11) tonight. The Bears, 52-46 winners over 10th-seeded Evansville on Thursday, are the first No. 7 seed in the tournament's 34 seasons to win 20 games.
The MVC is celebrating its 20th tournament in St. Louis. If the Shockers were in charge of the party, the keg would run dry early and embarrassing pictures would flood Facebook. The Shockers are the lone team not to play in the title game since the tournament docked in St. Louis in 1991. They are 8-18 with five semifinal losses in 18 appearances (not qualifying in 1996).
"I have guarded optimism that we are going to do something special this year," Dennis said. "The hope is that we're finally going to play on Sunday."
As the second seed, the Shockers should. Or could, as a cautious reading of their history dictates. WSU comes to St. Louis after playing close to 60 minutes of good basketball in its final two regular-season games. The Shockers hope the trends started in the second half of a loss to Bradley and a rout of Southern Illinois continue. In those three halves, WSU is shooting 57.1 percent and allowing 41.9 percent, outscoring opponents 122-91.
That is a small sample size, but it is a familiar look for the Shockers. On Jan. 31, they were 19-4 with 14 wins by double digits. They are 4-4 since, with a series of uneven performances bogging down the season.
"That was an important deal we had the second half at Bradley," WSU guard Clevin Hannah said. "We played with more passion, more energy. I think that's going to carry on through the tournament."
In some cases, halftime revivals are overblown. The Shockers say that isn't the case with this one. They trailed Bradley 39-27. They outscored the Braves by 10 in the second half and had a chance to win in the final seconds before losing 75-73.
"Players realized that if we're going to be the team that everybody thinks we are, that we think we are, we're going to have to start playing like it," junior Gabe Blair said. "People talked and people listened. People took in the stuff that was being said. They responded to it."
The Shockers are stingy with details of the halftime happenings. Blair said it was players, not coaches, who did most of the talking.
"It's more important when a player steps up and tells you something," he said. "That's the person that you're out there on the court with. That's the person who's going to make the next pass to you, or help you out on defense."
Blair, due to a bruised left thigh, was an observer the past two games. His absence forced coach Gregg Marshall to play post men J.T. Durley and Garrett Stutz together. Stutz started against Southern Illinois, in place of Aaron Ellis, for the first time this season, and the combination seems to work.
Marshall said starting the duo tonight may depend on the matchup. Defensively, neither player is used to guarding opponents who can shoot from the outside, so the duo comes with defensive limitations. Blair's anticipated return may also change the lineup.
Regardless, the pairing of Durley and Stutz gives WSU two talented scorers who work well together. Durley is averaging 15.5 points and 8.7 rebounds in the past four games. Stutz is averaging 10.5 and 4.7 in that span.
"Offensively, it's our best matchup," Marshall said. "Both of them are very skilled, and it's nice to see them hit their stride."
The adjustment gave MVC opponents something new to consider late in the season.
"We both can shoot the ball well," Durley said. "They can't double (team) us like they want to because we have another post who can shoot. They have to guard both of us."