After the national basketball media uses its time to cover Duke, Kentucky, Duke, Pacific-12 irrelevancy and Duke, it reserves a little time for the teams in flyover conferences.
Creighton got the first look pre-Christmas by virtue of its win at San Diego State and Doug McDermott’s stats. Murray State took over with its unbeaten run. Those stories are over, and it’s time for Wichita State to take its turn.
The Shockers are 22-4 and in first place in the Missouri Valley Conference after Saturday’s 89-68 win at No. 17 Creighton. They will likely move into the top 25 today and become the latest candidate for those looking for the next Butler or Virginia Commonwealth.
Coach Gregg Marshall is ready for the spotlight to find his team.
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“We’ve gotten some, but we’ve haven’t gotten nearly the amount of the Creighton team,” he said. “They deserve it, the way they played early in the year, they deserved it. But maybe (WSU) will get some. I’ve never been around a group more mentally tough.”
WSU last appeared in the Associated Press top 25 poll at No. 16 the week of Dec. 26, 2006. It climbed to No. 8 in the Dec. 11 poll on the strength of wins at George Mason, No. 6 LSU and No. 15 Syracuse before slumping in MVC play.
This season, WSU has been close. It received 31 in votes in last week’s poll, six spots away from the top 25. Several schools, including Creighton, No. 19 Virginia, No. 20 Mississippi State and No. 25 Harvard, lost last week, which could open a spot for the Shockers. In the coaches poll, WSU received five votes, 14 spots from the top 25.
It will be hard to ignore WSU. The Shockers humiliated their toughest conference rival on ESPN2 and added a quality road win to their NCAA Tournament resume. They have won five in a row since a double-overtime loss at Drake and are 19-2 since losing two games in Puerto Rico.
To be fair, national observers such as Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis, ESPN.com’s Jason King and ESPN’s Hubert Davis have demonstrated an awareness of the Shockers, especially after nationally televised games. Davis voted WSU No. 25 in last week’s AP poll. The Shockers aren’t as far out of the national consciousness as they think, but more love is always . welcome.
“We always say, ‘(People) have it out for Wichita State,’” guard Joe Ragland said. “We feel like we’re a successful team and we perform well. We just don’t get that recognition. I guess now they’re going to start paying attention to us.”
Those who take a close look will see a balanced team that is 7-1 on the road. On Saturday, the Shockers made 58.2 percent of their shots, committed nine turnovers and held Creighton 12 points below its scoring average. Ragland led WSU with 24 points, 17 in the second half. Forward Ben Smith tied his career-high with 22 points, grabbed six rebounds and played a large role in holding McDermott to 13 points, 10 below his average.
“We talked about, in order to win a championship you must take your game to another level,” Marshall said. “That’s what championship-caliber teams do. We’re not champions yet, but we’ve certainly closed the gap on being able to claim a championship.”
WSU led by 13 at halftime and extended the advantage in the second half to quiet a Creighton-record crowd of 18,735.
“Even if we had played our best tonight, I’m not sure it would’ve been good enough,” Bluejays coach Greg McDermott said. “We didn’t have an answer for anything they did.”
WSU returns to Koch Arena to play a dangerous game against third-place Missouri State on Wednesday. The Shockers will need to be ready to face a motivated team and forget the hoopla of Saturday’s win. The Bears bring a three-game win streak to Koch Arena and willl have center Caleb Patterson. He did not play in MSU’s 74-67 loss to the Shockers on Feb. 1.
“We’re a veteran team, and we know the bigger picture that we have,” WSU guard Demetric Williams said. “Being satisfied with this win will not be enough.”
WSU, chasing its first conference title since 2006, leads the MVC race by two games with three to play. One more win (or a Creighton loss) clinches a tie for the MVC title. Two wins clinches it outright and earns the Shockers the top seed in the MVC Tournament. Creighton plays at Southern Illinois on Tuesday.