There were games, not so long ago, when Wichita State's defense terrorized basketball opponents. The Shockers seemed to cover almost every inch of the court with hustling, long-armed defenders.
Somewhere this month, the Shockers lost that shutdown vibe. If there is one thing they can do to build momentum into the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament next week, it's return to those disruptive ways.
"We were defending really well and out-rebounding people, and we kind of stopped doing that," WSU junior Aaron Ellis said. "We've got to refocus on that and get back to the principles we had earlier in the year."
WSU (22-8, 11-6 MVC) ends the regular season today against Southern Illinois (15-13, 6-11) with three goals. The Shockers can finish in second place in the MVC, they can finish an unbeaten regular-season home schedule and they can head to St. Louis on a high note. WSU is tied with Illinois State for the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. The Redbirds, who play at Northern Iowa tonight, hold the tiebreaker if both win. If both teams lose, WSU is the No. 2 seed.
"You obviously want to have some good feelings going in (to the tournament)," WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. "We need to play well."
Injuries could play a major role in today's game. Guard Kevin Dillard, SIU's leading scorer, is questionable with a sprained ankle. He missed Tuesday's loss to Creighton. WSU forward Gabe Blair did some practicing on Friday. He sat out the Bradley game with a contusion to his left thigh. With the tournament beginning Friday, Marshall wants Blair as healthy as possible.
"The biggest thing is not knowing how he will bounce back if he does (play)," Marshall said.
WSU's March isn't likely to be any more satisfactory than February unless it improves on defense.
* Wednesday's 75-73 loss to Bradley marked the fifth time in the past six games an opponent shot better than 50 percent from the field. In WSU's first 24 games, one opponent shot better than 50 percent.
* The Braves made 55 percent of their three-pointers, the fourth time in six games an opponent shot 40 percent or better from three-point range. In the previous 24 games, four opponents shot 40 percent or better.
Before this defensive slump, the Shockers turned in two of their better defensive performances — both on the road. They held SIU to 40 percent shooting, 23.1 percent from three-point range, in a 55-54 win. Three nights later, they limited first-place Northern Iowa to 38 percent shooting in a 59-56 loss.
Marshall isn't disappointed with his team's effort in an overall sense. But the passion for stopping scorers clearly slipped.
"There's a fine line between being out there trying — you're out there trying and there's not any clear play that I can that's not really good at all," Marshall said, "And playing like it's the last possession of the game and you have to get a stop to win every single time."
WSU played with that "last possession" passion more often in January when it won five straight games. The change has been most obvious early in games. They fell behind 12-2 at Bradley on Wednesday. Indiana State built a 21-6 lead at Koch Arena earlier this month.
The Shockers trailed Bradley 39-27 at halftime. They outscored the Braves 46-36 in the second half.
"Whatever that is, it's missing," Marshall said.
Much of WSU's defensive success will be determined by how the Shockers guard SIU center Gene Teague. He scored 12 points in 25 minutes in the first meeting and put the Shockers in foul trouble. After making little impact early in the season, Teague is averaging 10.5 points in his past 13 games.
"His footwork and hands are as good as any big guy I've ever been around, considering that he can go with both shoulders," SIU coach Chris Lowery said. "We don't have to say go to the left block or go to the right block — he scores in the middle, left, or right block with the left or right hand."
Teague, a freshman from Brooklyn, N.Y., is 6-foot-9, 290 pounds. In his first 14 games, he averaged 2.2 points.
"He knew he could play, but his conditioning didn't allow for him to be on the floor," Lowery said. "There is no way in December or January that he could have played 15 to 16 minutes. And now you see the progression he has made to become a better player."