Wichita State broke the tie with a convincing victory over Illinois State and can spend the week pondering its NCAA Tournament destination.
The second-seeded Shockers are in after a 71-51 win over the top-seeded Redbirds in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title game on Sunday at Scottrade Center. The teams split regular-season meetings, with WSU claiming the biggest margin (41 points in early February) and the one that locked up a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Sunday’s box score
Wichita State (30-4) will make its sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, extending its program record. The next mystery is how the NCAA selection committee will seed a team that owns two top-50 RPI wins, but also a 15-game win streak and a history of out-performing previous seeds.
“I think we’re a top four or five seed, which means we’ll probably get a six or a seven,” Marshall said. “I know we’re a top 25 team. That’s already been proven. We’re playing really well and we’ve got a history of playing well in this tournament.”
The Shockers need Illinois State coach Dan Muller on the selection committee.
“They’re really, really, really good,” he said. “This might be the best team they’ve had.”
Big statement and one that bears investigation.
WSU’s accomplishments — all without a senior in the playing rotation — stack up with previous Marshall teams. WSU won the MVC Tournament for only the second time under Marshall. It reached the 30-win mark for the fourth time, all under Marshall. With a 15-game win streak, 14 by 15 or more points, the Shockers will roll into a first-round site certain they belong, regardless of seed.
“I’ll put us up against any team in the country,” WSU guard Landry Shamet said. “We deserve this recognition. Not just mid-majors. We’re one of the top teams in the nation.”
Sunday’s win looked like most this season for the Shockers. They took Illinois State out of its offense, forcing the Redbirds into difficult shots and harassing guard Paris Lee into another poor shooting game. WSU’s offense showed off its versatility — it didn’t need a big scoring game from center Shaq Morris — and efficiency against one of the nation’s top defensive teams.
Conner Frankamp led WSU with 19 points and earned tournament Most Outstanding Player honors. Markis McDuffie added 16, going 11 for 11 from the foul line for a title-game record. The Shockers made 7 of 16 three-pointers and outscored the Redbirds by 15 points at the foul line.
WSU led 46-37 with 11:19 to play and 54-37 less than two minutes later after making eight free throws. The Redbirds got no closer than 13.
The 5,000-or-so Shocker fans in the arena began to celebrate, the pep band hit the old favorites from past tournament parties and it all led to the trophy, the watches, the all-tournament team and cutting down nets. Marshall scurried around the court to prod managers and fans to join in. The players, most with strands of the net tied to blue championship hats, joined families and friends for hugs and high-fives in the seats.
“I told Coach Marshall before the tournament that we hadn’t had an official championship cutting-down-of-the nets,” Morris said. “We had to take care of business and do that this weekend.”
Illinois State (27-6) lost in the title game for a fifth straight time. The Redbirds will spend the week hoping that a power ranking (RPI) that climbed to No. 26 before the game and a 19-2 record since late December is enough for the NCAA selection committee.
“We didn’t play well,” Muller said. “Hopefully, they’ll look at the full body of work we have.”
Lee scored 18 points on 7-of-21 shooting. MiKyle McIntosh added 16, but seven of those came when the game was decided.
The Shockers started their defensive strategy by obscuring Lee’s vision with 6-foot-6 Zach Brown and 6-foot-7 McDuffie.
“My goal for every game is to take the best player out of his rhythm, make him take tough shots,” Brown said. “I did all I could. He’s the MVC Player of the Year, so he wasn’t going to lay down.”
That scheme worked in WSU’s 86-45 win in February — Lee made 2 of 10 shots and scored a season-low four points — and did so again.
“It kind of messed with us, but at the end of the day we just didn’t make shots,” Lee said.
Redbirds senior Deontae Hawkins, who signed with WSU before ending up a prep school and then Illinois State, fouled out and received two technical fouls and an ejection. His recruitment provided a flashpoint for the hard feelings and rivalry between the two coaching staffs and schools.
Illinois State’s Phil Fayne picked up two fouls in the game’s first three minutes and that sent the Redbirds off course. Fayne played a mere 14 minutes and scored two points. Foul trouble for Fayne, Hawkins, McIntosh and Daodua Ndiaye ruined Illinois State’s defense in the lane.
“Fouling killed us,” Muller said. “I just knew how critical those fouls were going to be with our bigs. It showed in our play. It showed in our confidence. If you get your bigs in foul trouble against this team and you don’t have depth with the bigs, you’re in trouble.”
WSU led 46-37 when it started an 8-0 run put the game out of reach for Illinois State’s stumbling offense. Daishon Smith’s foul shots started the run, followed by McDuffie’s three foul shots. After a Smith steal, Darral Willis’ foul shot put the Shockers up 54-37 with 9:39 to play.
The Shockers didn’t need to score much more. They made two baskets in the final 10 minutes and put the NCAA bid on ice from the foul line, making 13 of 21 in the final 10 minutes.
“We’ve got a championship trophy going back home to Wichita,” Shocker forward Rashard Kelly said. “We worked this hard to come this far. We just kind of controlled our own destiny.”
Jaylon Brown, Evansville
Alize Johnson, Missouri State
Paris Lee, Illinois State
Landry Shamet, Wichita State
Most Outstanding Player - Conner Frankamp, Wichita State