CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Going on the road is rarely the perfect pick-me-up after a devastating home loss. This is a unique basketball season at Wichita State, however, so a trip might be just the thing the Shockers need.
"Our weakness of going on the road is no longer there," WSU senior Graham Hatch said. "We don't seem to be affected by it. We're a lot more focused on what we need to do."
WSU plays at Northern Iowa tonight. Both teams are in need of recovery. The Shockers (20-5, 11-3 Missouri Valley) took a step back in the MVC race and in building an NCAA Tournament resume with a 56-53 loss to Southern Illinois on Tuesday. Northern Iowa (18-8, 9-5) lost two in a row to fall into third place after a season-ending injury to senior forward Lucas O'Rear.
For the Shockers, the mission is not to let Tuesday's disappointment affect tonight's game. The Shockers know their margin for error in the MVC race _—not to mention NCAA at-large hopes — is down to almost nothing. They also know they've won six MVC road games, all by 10 or more points. All the goals that existed on Monday are still possible.
"We can't dwell on that loss, because we've got a lot of huge games coming up," junior guard Joe Ragland said. "That loss was big, and it shouldn't have happened. It's time to move on."
The road is a place WSU can do that. It rebounded from a home loss to Missouri State by winning at Creighton for the first time in 17 seasons and at Drake. After losing to UNI at Koch Arena, the Shockers won five straight, two of those on the road.
Perhaps it's a product of the schedule, but the numbers say WSU is often a better offensive team on the road. Its lowest-scoring games and worst shooting performances came at home against MSU and SIU. In its six road games, WSU hasn't made fewer than 46 percent of its shots. Its four worst shooting performances in MVC games all came at home, all below 42 percent.
Offense wasn't the problem in the 77-74 loss to UNI on Jan. 19. The Shockers couldn't keep Panthers guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe from penetrating. He scored 21 points and handed out four assists while controlling the game. Guard Anthony James made 9 of 13 shots and added 20 points.
"We gave up 77 points, which is absolutely ridiculous," WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. "They made everything against us. They haven't done that all year."
The Panthers shot 57.4 percent from the field, with Ahelegbe creating most of the offense working off screens.
"Ever since two weeks ago, we've been working on ball screens every day." Ragland said. "Our big men are doing a better job hedging out, and the guards are trying a lot harder to fight over the top and keep guys in front of them."
The Panthers are 0-2 without O'Rear, who broke his right ankle in a win over Illinois State on Feb. 2. His absence shows up in many ways. Drake, the MVC's worst rebounding team, out-rebounded UNI in a 72-69 win. So did Evansville, in a 70-62 win on Tuesday.
Without O'Rear setting picks to start the offense to free the guards, the Panthers made 11 of 40 three-pointers in those losses.
"He was a hard worker, and he did what they needed him to do," WSU center Garrett Stutz said. "Every time they played us, he pulls a big guy away from the basket and set good screens on the guards. That's hard to defend."
Setting picks. Making outlet passes. Boxing out. Pushing for position in the lane on defense. O'Rear did all of that well enough to win MVC Sixth Man of the Year twice. He was no less effective as a starter this season.
"Those are things that are hard to replace," UNI coach Ben Jacobson said. "He might take two shots and have four or five rebounds. You don' t gather much by looking at that stat sheet. Everybody in our league really appreciated his impact on the game."