When the Wichita State players stepped out of their chartered plane in the early hours last Sunday, the morale was at perhaps the lowest it had been the entire season.
They didn’t care that they had played the country’s 10th-most difficult schedule to that point with the country’s fifth-least experienced team. All that mattered to them was that WSU was 1-6 in conference play and they had just played two of their worst offensive games of the season.
If they were going to turn things around their season, well, it might have started for the Shockers with regaining their confidence starting this week in front of more than 10,000 fans at Koch Arena.
Fast forward nearly a week later and the mood on the team has taken a complete 180. The Shockers are coming off their second straight win, this one a 79-68 victory over Tulsa on Saturday, where the offense flourished.
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Confidence has been restored, and according to the players, an assist goes to Shocker Nation, who has continued to support the team through the first turbulent season in a decade.
“This is by far the best crowd I’ve played in front of,” WSU freshman Jamarius Burton said after Saturday’s victory. “These people get up when they want to see us do great things. We just have to go out there and do it and when we do it, they get loud for us and they boost us and they give us confidence throughout the game.”
In its two road games last week, WSU’s offense cratered. The Shockers shot 36.9 percent on two-pointers, 17.6 percent on three-pointers and 31.3 percent from the field overall. They scored 41 points in a loss to South Florida in the single worst offensive showing of the Gregg Marshall era and near the top of the worst in program history.
Koch Arena brought out an entirely different team this past week. In wins over SMU and Tulsa, the Shockers made 53.2 percent of their two-pointers, 35.8 percent of their three-pointers and 46.1 percent of their shots from the field overall. After averaging 50.5 points last week, WSU averaged 82.0 points this week.
On Saturday, the crowd once again helped will WSU to a win down the stretch. After failing to win many loose balls in the first 30 minutes, the Shockers won almost all of them in the final 10. With each loose ball won, the crowd ratcheted up the noise higher and higher in approval.
“That’s what Shocker basketball is all about,” said senior forward Markis McDuffie. “We have a lot of fans who have our back, and they love that type of stuff. When we do that stuff, the crowd gets loud and you can’t even hear yourself speak. That just boosts our confidence. When it was crunch time, we handled our business.”
Koch Arena was at its best when WSU was in the midst of an 8-0 run to tie the game at 60-60 with less than nine minutes to play. On the final defensive stand, the crowd grew louder and louder as the seconds ticked away on the shot clock for Tulsa. By the time Elijah Joiner heaved a three-point prayer, the crowd was basically in a frenzy.
Seconds later, Koch Arena reached its ear-splitting peak when Jaime Echenique finished a basket inside to tie the game. Tulsa coach Frank Haith was forced to burn a timeout to quiet the noise, at least temporarily.
“They’ve got great fans here,” Haith said. “Wichita State fans are outstanding. Just terrific energy and they stay with their team and they never leave them. I’ve got to give them a lot of pop there. It does have a factor (on the game). It definitely looked like it energized those guys.”
But he couldn’t call a timeout every time Tulsa lost its poise and eventually the crowd noise became a factor. Caught up in the noise, Tulsa looked rushed down the stretch and struggled to take care of the basketball or produce clean looks.
On Tulsa’s final 17 possessions, the Golden Hurricane committed six turnovers and missed 7 of 10 shots and 3 of 5 free throws. During that time, spanning the final 10:25 of the game, WSU outscored Tulsa 27-8.
“It was definitely difficult,” Tulsa junior Curran Scott said. “The fans here were extremely loud, so there was a lot going on out there.”
After calling the game for ESPN, broadcaster Sean Harrington tweeted “first trip to (Wichita State) and the Roundhouse did not disappoint. Best home court in the (American) that I have seen.”
Before declaring WSU’s season officially on the rise, it’s fair to point out the Shockers have been in this situation before. They won back-to-back games at Koch Arena early in the non-conference play and even strung three wins together at home at one point in December.
What ended all of those streaks? Road losses.
That’s what Marshall needs to see from his Shockers before getting too excited. He knows WSU can beat any team in the American Athletic Conference at Koch Arena. But right now the Shockers have to prove they can beat anybody on the road, with the next challenge coming Wednesday at East Carolina.
“We could go on the road and play terrible at East Carolina,” Marshall said, cautioning too much enthusiasm over a pair of home wins. “We haven’t played well on the road. That’s the next step, is now playing well away from home. I’ll be really happy when we start doing that and I think everybody else will be too. We have some positive momentum now, so the next step is playing well on the road.”