Key statistics: Missouri State had nine players in uniform, none of whom were named Marcus Marshall. Or Ron Mvouika. With those two available, maybe MSU lives up to its third-place prediction in the MVC poll and makes WSU sweat. Without them, the Bears are a Thursday team.
Records: WSU 17-2, 7-0 MVC; MSU 8-11, 2-5
How the game turned: Three-pointers by Rashard Kelly and Ron Baker gave WSU a 56-41 lead with 11:28 to play. With the Bears struggling on offense, the Shockers didn’t need to score again. Well, they probably did, but you get the point.
Stat that shouldn’t surprise you: WSU guard Fred VanVleet recorded seven assists and one turnover, extending his MVC-leading stats to 5.6 assists and a 3.8 assist-to-turnover ratio (which ranks fifth nationally). The last player to lead the MVC in assists in consecutive seasons was Illinois State’s Jamar Smiley, in 1996, 1997 and 1998. Others: West Texas State’s Terry Adolph (1980, 81), Bradley’s Jim Les (1984, 85, 86) and Bradley’s Anthony Manuel (1987, 88, 89).
Stat that might surprise you: The Bears scored 22 points in the paint, matching WSU. Largely meaningless, but, it is a stat. And it might surprise you.
Next up: vs. Drake (4-15 1-6), 1:07 p.m. Sunday (No TV)
▪ WSU coach Gregg Marshall didn’t like the way the Bears out-ran the Shockers in the first half, so he made it simple for his team. He went to “push and play” on fast breaks, which takes some of the thinking out of it.
“If you want to score in transition, beat your man down and get an opportunity,” he said. “I thought it helped us just sprinting. We sprinted. There’s no set place to be. We’re just trying to beat them down, trying to score before the defense gets set.”
Those plays showed up several times to help WSU build a bigger lead in the second half. Marshall mentioned center Bush Wamukota running hard to the lane, which forced defenders to cover him and opened up shooters. VanVleet twice grabbed rebounds, after guarded shots by the Bears, and ran a break to find Baker for open threes. Those baskets, part of a 13-3 run, took the game into cruise control territory and sucked the life out of the crowd and the Bears.
“When you call out secondary (plays) and different options for guys to do, they focus on that instead of the most important part, which is just running,” VanVleet said. “Coach kind of loosened up a little bit and said ‘Forget the plays and just sprint the floor and play basketball.’ That’s a lot of trust on his part, showing his trust in us that we’ll be able to make good plays.”
▪ WSU freshman forward Rashard Kelly played 16 minutes, his most since starting at Drake and playing 21. Kelly scored seven points and grabbed three rebounds, with a block and a steal, and Marshall hopes that activity is a sign Kelly is returning to pre-Christmas production.
“He played with energy,” Marshall said. “He played with toughness. He was very, very tough and aggressive and active, which is what he needs to be. He knocked down a big three in the corner. He’s going to be very selective on his threes, but if they’re not going to guard him, he’s certainly allowed to step into a wide-open one.”
▪ Wednesday’s crowd didn’t match last season’s packed house at JQH Arena. The veteran Shockers did try to prepare the newcomers for the student section, reminding them of last season’s game in which the Bears fed off crowd energy (and great shooting) to build a 19-point lead.
“We wanted to make sure our new guys were ready to play,” Baker said. “None of them have been in this environment to know how the crowd affects the game.”
▪ In the second half of the past three road games, WSU is 34 of 67 (50.7 percent) and 12 of 24 from three-point range, averaging 38 points. Its opponents are 22 of 74 (29.7 percent) and 5 of 14 from three (all five makes by Loyola), averaging 22.6 points.
In general, that says all the usual things about how WSU wins. It says the Shockers are consistent, in good shape and make smart adjustments. That they do it on the road, over and over again, is not easy to duplicate.
“It’s just keeping the intensity and the grind up,” Baker said.
WSU improved to 44-9 on the road since the 2010-11 season, the nation’s best win percentage.
▪ We’re seven games in to the MVC schedule and the standings seem defined. The wild card appears to be Indiana State, in third, and we’ll give the Sycamores another week or so to see if they can contend with WSU and Northern Iowa. They don’t play WSU until Feb. 11.
The Thursday teams appear set — MSU, Bradley, SIU and Drake. SIU has won two straight and already played at WSU and UNI, so perhaps the Salukis are the best choice to move up.
That leaves Evansville, Illinois State and Loyola, and likely Indiana State, battling for seeds 3-6. The Sycamores hold a nice card with a sweep of Illinois State. Loyola lost at SIU and at home to Evansville on Wednesday and Milton Doyle sat out with an ankle injury. The Ramblers might be the team one of the bottom four can catch.
▪ No TV on Sunday. Those are hard words to type, because it means The Eagle phones will be flooded with calls demanding to know why the game isn’t on TV.
Here’s why: The MVC’s Sunday package is flexible to put the best matchups on ESPNU. ESPN chose Northern Iowa at Illinois State for its 3 p.m. ESPNU slot. Considering the standings, that’s a good choice.
Drake-WSU is available on ESPN3, the Internet platform. So buy a ticket, find a friend or learn how ESPN3 works. Or listen on the radio.
WSU has one more Sunday flex possibility, when it plays Evansville on Feb. 22. The competition is Missouri State at Drake, so expect the Shockers to grab ESPNU.