Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz: This start increases prospects

The Missouri Valley Conference basketball race is under way. That is, if there's a race to be had.

While one game doesn't establish a trend, I want to see the team that's going to beat Wichita State when the Shockers play the way they did Wednesday night against Evansville at Koch Arena.

As WSU coach Gregg Marshall rattled through all the things his team did right in beating the Purple Aces 91-57, I checked my watch twice. I wondered if his list would ever end. He went on and on — great shooting, stifling defense, a rebounding clinic, a passing expose. He covered it all.

"I told them in our huddles that it was a beautiful thing to watch,'' Marshall said.

Not so much in the Evansville huddles, where Aces coach Marty Simmons wore a bald spot on top of his head from scratching it so much.

WSU shot out to a 15-2 lead in front of a Happy New Year kind of sellout crowd. You want to know a Valley coach's worst nightmare? That's in the top three.

Eventually, Simmons pulled out a zone defense to try to slow down the Shockers. His team rarely plays zone, but something had to be done. And the zone worked for a while, if you can call cutting a lead from 19 points to 10 working.

But Evansville wasn't going to keep a team like the Shockers down for long. And WSU erupted in the second half, making 9 of 13 three pointers, out-rebounding the Aces 22-9 and outscoring them, 53-32.

"A thorough game for us,'' Marshall said. "We played close to 40 minutes.''

The Shockers scored 91 despite a 9:08 stretch in the first half — against that rare Evansville zone — when they managed only 10 points. That means WSU scored 81 points in the other 30:52, ripping apart a defense that has stymied the Shockers in the past.

Last season — a good one for Wichita State and an atrocious one for Evansville — the Aces beat the Shockers in Evansville and took WSU to overtime at Koch Arena. So it was with some apprehension, surely, that Marshall approached Wednesday's Valley opener.

Funny what a 15-2 run to open a game does to apprehension.

The Shockers hit Evansville from every direction. Twelve WSU players scored. Junior college transfers Ben Smith and Joe Ragland, lackluster most of the season, asserted themselves by scoring 28 points on 10-of-13 shooting — 6 of 9 from three-point range.

Toure Murry is getting better and better at the point guard position. He had seven assists and would have had more if a couple of baskets had been made by the beneficiaries of his passes.

David Kyles continued his breakthrough season in style. J.T. Durley had 12 points, five rebounds and three assists.

Simmons, whose Aces defeated last season's national runners-up, Butler, on the road in November and were crushed at home by North Carolina, acknowledged the Shockers were as good as any team his team has played. Listening to him, you got the feeling he couldn't wait to get on the team bus and pop a couple Excedrin.

The Shockers have the look of a team that can win a bunch of games in the Valley. And by a bunch, I mean 15 or 16. If not 17 or 18.

Crazy talk? I don't think so. I expect Wichita State to be a much better team on the road, where they were 3-6 in Valley play last season. The Shockers' experience and depth should be the biggest factors in such a road turnaround.

Plus, the Valley doesn't have much bite this season. Missouri State won a big road game at Northern Iowa on Wednesday night and both of those teams should be strong. Creighton looks to be improving. But who else?

"I think they're a pretty confident bunch right now, but now we've got to go on the road,'' said Marshall, whose team plays at Bradley on New Year's night. "We've got to go play our first road game in this league.''

It'll be a surprise if the Shockers don't win Saturday. It'll be a surprise if they don't win a whole bunch of Valley games before a Feb. 12 game at Northern Iowa. Before that, WSU will play home games against Missouri State (Jan. 9) and Northern Iowa (Jan. 19), and a road game at Creighton (Jan. 12). No gimmes, for sure.

But is it unrealistic to think Wichita State could be 14-0 in the MVC going into its road game against Northern Iowa in the middle of February?

After watching the Shockers dismantle Evansville — one game, I know — maybe not.