Bob Lutz

Shockers are good, but just how good?

Wichita State center Shaq Morris goes to the basket against Indiana State center T.J. Bell during the second half Saturday.
Wichita State center Shaq Morris goes to the basket against Indiana State center T.J. Bell during the second half Saturday. The Wichita Eagle

We know Wichita State’s basketball team is good. Saturday’s 84-58 pounding of Indiana State is the latest evidence and it wasn’t that close; the Shockers led 24-4 early.

When the Sycamores’ 3-on-1 fast break resulted in a clanked shot off the backboard, it was apparent ISU wasn’t in any position to push the Shockers.

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But do we know how good Wichita State is or can be?

There’s some debate. Because while WSU has blown out every team that dares enter Koch Arena wearing basketball uniforms, the Shockers have struggled against the four-best teams they have played: Louisville, Michigan State, Oklahoma State and Illinois State.

Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall praised his team for its performance Saturday and loved what he saw from junior center Shaq Morris (24 points, eight rebounds, four assists, two blocks, one steal, 6-of-10 shooting, 12-of-15 free throws) in only 21 minutes. He also liked the way the Shockers defended and gushed about the job junior Zach Brown, who had only two points, did on Indiana State’s leading scorer, Brenton Scott, who had only three.

Marshall, though, is smart enough not to be fooled by the landslide wins at Koch Arena against inferior competition. WSU (17-4) is 11-0 at Koch with an average victory margin of 29.6 points. The concession stands should sell popcorn, peanuts and pillows.

It’s hard to gauge just how good the Shockers are or how far they could go if — and can you believe we’re wondering about “if?” — they reach the NCAA Tournament.

For now, that’s in doubt. And it could be in doubt until Selection Sunday if the Shockers don’t lock up the automatic bid at the Valley tournament in early March.

“I’m not sure what our ceiling is,” Marshall said, acknowledging he doesn’t think his team has approached one. “We’re obviously talented, but again it’s the same things we’ve talked about.”

For Marshall, whether the Shockers do or don’t revolves around defense. Saturday, it was good. There are times, though, when it’s left him wanting.

“Our defense probably is not where it was last year, even though we’re longer and more athletic,” Marshall said. “And I think that’s because of toughness, mental and physical toughness. I’m not talking about brawn and pushing guys around but the toughness to get in a (defensive) stance every single possession with five guys who are putting on a ballet, a performance, with their defensive tenacity and efficiency.”

There probably hasn’t been a postgame news conference in Marshall’s 10 seasons at Wichita State that he didn’t say something about defense. I’m guessing the same is true about his nine years at Winthrop before.

In a sport that makes the biggest deal about scoring and shooting, Marshall has managed to keep his players’ noses to the defensive grindstone. And when they lift those noses to check things out, he makes sure they get them right back down.

You know Marshall’s story by now. He played college basketball only — only — because he had a knack for defending. Shooting and scoring weren’t his thing and while he’s learned to value those commodities as a coach, he’s still preaching from the pulpit of D.

“We can certainly get better in that regard,” Marshall said. “And if we do, our ceiling is pretty high. But we’re a work in progress. It’s still January and hopefully we’ll be playing deep into March. But we have to continue to work every day.”

The Shockers are averaging 82.3 points and giving up 64.4. But in the losses to Michigan State, Oklahoma State and Illinois State, they allowed 77, 93 and 76 points.

The best teams have brought out the worst of the Shockers. So it’s a team without any quality wins to speak of and one that gets little to no help, outside of Illinois State, from the Missouri Valley Conference.

Beating Indiana State (7-13), losers of 7 of 8 Valley games, isn’t a blip on anyone’s radar. The Shockers are an afterthought despite a glowing record, a great recent history and one of the best coaches in the country.

Why? Mostly it’s because of the MVC, but the non-conference schedule hasn’t panned out as expected. Louisville, which lost Saturday to No. 10 Florida State, is ranked 12th. But the Cardinals are the only Shocker opponent in the Top 25, the only Shocker opponent even getting votes.

It’s difficult to gauge just how good the Shockers are, which seems ridiculous given the average margin of victory in 11 home games. Take away Louisville, though, and the record for the opponents this season is 134-172.

There’s a feel-good nature to 26-point wins and games that are over, realistically, before they even begin. But Wichita State isn’t getting much from being in the Valley, where only Illinois State has the wherewithal to conquer.

The slaughters continue. But so do the questions.

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