Not even two months ago, the task of winning three straight road games would have seemed impossible for a Wichita State team that didn’t pick up its first road win until February.
But that task has become less and less daunting as the weeks have passed and the Shockers have improved. They have now won 12 of their last 15 games, including four straight on the road.
Needing three straight road wins to reach Madison Square Garden and the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament, Wichita State arrives at step two with a 1 p.m. Central time Sunday game against Clemson at Littlejohn Coliseum on ESPN.
A date at Indiana’s Assembly Hall awaits the winner next week in the NIT quarterfinals.
“They looked scared to death early in the year because none of them have ever been in a college ‘away’ atmosphere,” said WSU coach Gregg Marshall of his Shockers, who lost their first six road games by a combined 101 points. “(It was key) getting that over with, not being scared, and then having a little success. That breeds confidence. We try to defend and rebound because those things travel. That was our message early on, but we didn’t quite get it.”
The last two weeks in particular have featured the Shockers playing their most gritty basketball of the season away from Koch Arena.
In Memphis for the American Athletic Conference tournament, WSU didn’t shoot well against Temple but defended well and beat a team that was desperate to win to improve its NCAA tournament chances. Next, WSU trailed Cincinnati by 13 points with nine minutes left but clawed back to tie the score and had a chance to take the lead in the closing seconds.
In the first round of the NIT, a 76-70 road win at Furman, the Shockers scored on their final seven possessions of the game to win a game that was tied with four minutes remaining.
“There’s no quit,” Marshall said. “They’ve continued to fight to the end. They’re enjoying playing. They’re enjoying being in the locker room, singing victory songs and their goal is to get (Paterson N.J. native) Markis (McDuffie) back home. The group has a pretty strong resolve to try to help him and play in Madison Square Garden. That’s our goal and Clemson is standing in the way.”
If you believe in KenPom rankings, Clemson (30) will be the second-toughest team the Shockers will have played this season. The Tigers (20-13) barely missed the NCAA Tournament under coach Brad Brownell, thanks to an 0-7 record in games decided by five points or fewer against top-90 KenPom opponents.
Clemson holds opponents to under 41 percent shooting with one of the strongest defenses in the country. Guard Marcquise Reed (19.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.1 steals) is a ball hawk out front, 6-8 wing David Skara uses his length to lock up perimeter players and 6-9, 245-pound center Elijah Thomas (13.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.2 blocks) is one of the country’s best rim protectors.
“They have a great coach and great athletes,” Marshall said. “Brad has always been a good defensive coach going back to his days at Wilmington and then Wright State. They guard. They’re in the right position. They’re well-schooled. They pay attention to the tips that their coaching staff gives them.”
That type of defense should be nothing new to WSU. The Shockers played some good defensive teams in their conference, including Houston, Cincinnati and Central Florida. And they’ve proven they don’t have to shoot well to compete and even win games — they’ve won seven of their last 12 shooting under 40 percent.
So how did one of the most inexperienced teams in the country survive such a tumultuous 8-11 start to the season?
In Marshall’s mind, it started before the adversity hit, before the season even began.
“You recruit character,” Marshall said. “We’ve tried to recruit quality, young men to have in this program. We coach them every day. We push them every day to be the best people, the best students and the best players they can be. These guys come here to try to be the best they can be on and off the court and we’re very opaque with that when we recruit them. They want to be the best representatives of our program that they possibly can be on and off the court. They want to be great basketball players and they want to have a winning team and a winning program.”
No. 6 Wichita State at No. 2 Clemson
Records: WSU 20-14, CU 20-13
When: 1 p.m. Central time Sunday
Where: Littlejohn Coliseum (9,000), Clemson, S.C.
Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM
About Wichita State: Although WSU’s first-round site, Greenville, is only 32 miles away from its second-round site, Clemson, WSU elected to return for two days in between. The Shockers had never played a game in South Carolina before this season and now Sunday’s game will be the fifth of the season in the Palmetto State... Gregg Marshall won his 500th game with the victory over Furman on Tuesday. Marshall was 194-83 in nine seasons at Winthrop and is now 306-112 in 12 years at WSU.... This is the 11th straight season the Shockers have played in the postseason. The streak began with a 2009 CBI bid, continued with NIT appearances in 2010 and 2011, followed by seven straight NCAA tournaments... WSU is one of eight programs to have won at least 20 games in every season since 2010... Senior Markis McDuffie can set the program record for total minutes in a season if he plays at least 32 minutes on Sunday. McDuffie (1,117 minutes) would break the record of Randy Smithson (1,148) set on the 1981 Elite Eight Shockers.
About Clemson: This is the first meeting between Clemson and WSU in men’s basketball... Clemson ranks No. 30 in KenPom, the second-highest team on WSU’s schedule this season and the second-best among non-NCAA tournament teams. The Tigers were No. 35 in the final NET rankings... This is the third NIT appearance for Clemson under coach Brad Brownell. Clemson reached the semifinals in 2014 and lost in the first round in 2017... WSU has lost its last five games against ACC schools, including back-to-back NCAA tournament losses to Notre Dame in the 2015 Sweet 16 and to Miami in the 2016 second round. The last time WSU won against an ACC foe was an overtime win at Virginia Tech during its 2011 NIT championship run... WSU coach Gregg Marshall is 1-3 in his career against Clemson with all four meetings taking place at Littlejohn Coliseum during his days at Winthrop... Former Evansville head coach Marty Simmons is in his first year as an assistant coach at Clemson. Marshall and Simmons faced off 21 times between 2007-17 in the Missouri Valley.