Practices are not the problem for Wichita State.
That is the good news, along with the fact the Shockers are 11-2, ranked No. 16 nationally, and believe they aren’t close to reaching their potential. WSU opened Missouri Valley Conference play with a closer-than-expected 66-58 win at Drake on Wednesday. WSU (11-2, 1-0 MVC) plays Illinois State (8-5, 0-1) on Sunday at Koch Arena looking for a consistency of execution that has eluded it in recent weeks.
On Tuesday, WSU coach Gregg Marshall reminded fans that last season’s 35-1 record was a rare event and things would not go so smoothly this season. On Wednesday, Drake backed him up by pushing the Shockers into the final minutes. That performance added to the angst fans felt after a last-second win at Hawaii and a loss to George Washington in the Diamond Head Classic.
The Shockers view things a bit differently as they take another swing at the 18-game conference schedule. They remember ups and downs are part of the deal, even if last season’s success make those days seem from a past life. They know they’re playing without injured starter Evan Wessel and with six scholarship freshmen.
“We’re a tight-knit group,” VanVleet said. “It’s just a grind. Obviously (fans) aren’t used to seeing certain guys play bad, but that’s just the way it’s been going. We’ve been having good practices and that’s what been keeping morale up. We’re putting the work in.”
Practice time has been limited over the past two weeks because of the trip to Hawaii and opening on the road at Drake. The Shockers, who last played at home on Dec. 16, can resume their routine and that can help execution and conditioning.
“Honestly, we practiced way better than we played (at Drake),” guard Ron Baker said. “That’s something we’re going to emphasize, probably, is getting practice into a game. We go hard. Now that we have Conner (Frankamp) on our scout team, he’s giving us more looks and he’s doing a great job. We’re executing a lot better in practice than we are in games. I swear we shoot it better, and I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Better execution and better shooting will make everything look a lot better for WSU. It made 40.4 percent of its shots at Drake, an improvement from a season-low 34.4 percent against George Washington and 39.7 percent against Hawaii.
“I’m just looking forward to playing a home game again,” Marshall said. “I’m usually pretty pleased with practices, and this time of year we’re going to keep working until we get the quality we want.”
WSU may also get a boost with the return of Wessel, who missed three games in Hawaii with a sprained ankle and played a few seconds at Drake at the end of the first half. He is gradually adding more strenuous activities during practice.
“He went full-speed for a couple segments (Friday), so it’s looking pretty good,” Marshall said.
Baker reversed a shooting slump by making 8 of 15 shots and scoring 23 points against Drake, including 15 of WSU’s final 18. VanVleet‘s scoring continues to fall below last season’s efficiency, although he is 7 for 14 from three-point range over his past five games.
Defenses are gearing up to stop his drives to the basket, whether it be with waiting shot-blockers or help defenders taking a charge. Open paths to the basket are rare and the result is sometimes a difficult shot or a turnover. Against Drake, he made 2 of 6 shots and committed three turnovers to tie a season-high.
The extra attention is not surprising for VanVleet, who earned MVC Player of the Year honors last and started his junior year on watch lists for several national Player of the Year honors.
“It’s been like that, obviously with all the preseason accolades, that I’m on the scouting report and a lot of teams try to take that away,” he said. “I think I forced it a few times and got an offensive foul another time. Those are things I’ve got to correct. I’ve just got to make adjustments and take what the defense gives you.”
VanVleet doesn’t want to change his desire to get into the lane and break down the defense. The Shockers are shooting well from three-point range — 40.2 percent over the past four games — and the growth of shooters such as Zach Brown and Corey Henderson Jr. may spread the court and open the lane for easier plays.
“I just try to get in the paint and make things happen,” VanVleet said. “I hope teams keep trying to shut the paint down for me. There’s going to be wide-open shots for guys that I know can knock them down. We need to get some more points in the paint, whether it’s from me or whoever our post player is. We’ve got to get more points in the paint, more free throws.”
Senior guard Tekele Cotton scored 17 points against Drake, tying his season high. He made 2 of 3 three-pointers after entering the game 3 for 16 in his previous four games. He put in extra work with assistant coach Greg Heiar after the return from Hawaii.
“I’ve been trying to get in the gym as much I’ve can,” Cotton said. “The best way to get back into your little groove is to get back in the gym.”
“It looked really good coming out his hand,” he said. “That’s what we need.”
Illinois State received a major dose of MVC reality in its opener. Indiana State — which had lost seven straight games to NCAA Division I opponents — came into Redbird Arena and won 63-61 on Wednesday. Injuries hit Illinois State hard last month and its lineup is not the same one that won five of six games.
Forward DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, who averages 14.1 points and 5.5 rebounds, is out with a broken right hand. Center Reggie Lynch, bothered by a bad back, played only 14 minutes against Indiana State. Forward Deontae Hawkins missed three games with a stress reaction in his left foot before playing four minutes against Indiana State. Lynch and Hawkins are questionable for Sunday’s game.
Hawkins, a 6-8 freshman from Dayton, Ohio, signed with Wichita State in 2011. He was not cleared by the NCAA for academic eligibility and did not attend WSU. After a year at a prep school in Iowa, he followed former WSU assistant coach Dana Ford to Illinois State. Hawkins sat out last season for academic reasons and did not practice with the team. He started nine games and averages 6.7 points.
Illinois State at No. 16 Wichita State
When: 4:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Koch Arena
Records: ISU 8-5, 0-1 MVC; WSU 11-2, 1-0
Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM
Illinois State at No. 16 Wichita State
Illinois State: (8-5, 0-1 MVC): The Redbirds shot 35.8 percent from the field in Wednesday’s 63-61 loss to Indiana State and were out-rebounded 34-30. They committed 20 turnovers, their second-highest total this season … Illinois State’s offense often comes from rebounding. It is shooting 44.3 percent from the field and 33.9 percent from three-point range. It leads the MVC by averaging 13.8 offensive rebounds and it grabs a conference-leading 38.2-percent of offensive rebounds. It is second in rebound margin at plus-5.2, behind WSU’s plus-6.4 … G Bobby Hunter comes off the bench and averages 9.6 points. He is making 46.5 percent of his three-pointers … McIntosh moved into the starting lineup in mid-December and is thriving. He totaled 12 points in Illinois State’s first six games. Since then, he is averaging 10.3 points with a high of 18 at UAB.
Wichita State (11-2, 1-0): WSU C Shaq Morris practiced after coach Gregg Marshall kept him at home for Wednesday’s game at Drake. On Friday, Marshall, unhappy with Morris’ practice habits, said he is undecided if he will play on Sunday … The Shockers committed a season-low five turnovers in Wednesday’s 66-58 win at Drake. They lead the MVC in turnover margin (plus-4.3), ahead of Illinois State (plus-1.92) … Drake’s slow pace and lane-guarding defense led to season lows for WSU in points in the paint (18), points off turnovers (five) and second-chance points (three) … WSU has won five straight against the Redbirds and 11 of 12. Illinois State last won at Koch Arena in 2008.
RPIs as of Saturday: ISU 111, WSU 9.