Bob Lutz

Sure, Shockers are rolling, but St. Louis is known for its bumps

WSU's Toure Murry (23) and Ramon Clemente walk off the court after losing to Creighton 63-62 on a last-second shot by Booker Woodfox on March 6, 2009.
WSU's Toure Murry (23) and Ramon Clemente walk off the court after losing to Creighton 63-62 on a last-second shot by Booker Woodfox on March 6, 2009. File photo

It’s Wichita State’s house of horrors, otherwise known as any arena the Shockers play basketball in during the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.

First it was The Arena, located in Forest Park until its demolition in 1999. Then it was the Scotttrade Center, where the Shockers have continued their mysterious St. Louis silence.

The MVC Tournament has been in St. Louis 26 years now and the Shockers have won the thing once, in 2014, when they were putting together a 35-0 run before losing to Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament.

Wichita State is 122-22 in the Missouri Valley Conference regular season since 2009-10, but 11-8 in the tournament.

The Shockers are in the midst of their greatest Valley regular-season run in history, 68-4 over the past four seasons. Yet they are here with no guarantee of anything, including a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

This seems ludicrous, yet so many Wichita State dreams have been crushed in St. Louis, where the Shockers are 19-24 in MVC Tournament games, a record made even less flattering with the realization it’s possible to lose only once in the tourney.

The narrative of Wichita State’s failures in St. Louis has worn thin, but it’s fat with examples.

It didn’t help that the first years for the Valley tournament in St. Louis were also some of the worst years in Shocker basketball history. Wichita State couldn’t get out of its own way in the 1990s and its Valley tournament record of 2-8 was indicative of the disarray.

The Shockers missed the tournament outright in 1996. Didn’t even qualify. Stayed home. Given how things were going at the time, though, it didn’t seem like such a bad thing.

WSU has lost in St. Louis to every current Valley school except recent-addition Loyola — yes, even Drake — and was 0-6 against former Valley rivals Tulsa and Creighton in St. Louis games.

This year feels different, but the Shockers have been able to say that before. Then they’ve had to tuck tail and get out of St. Louis under the dark of night, embarrassed to not do better and humiliated at leaving a loud and loyal fan base with little to scream about.

Wichita State reached the semifinals of the tournament in St. Louis once in its first 11 tries. The Shockers didn’t get to a championship game until 2010, when they were defeated by Northern Iowa 67-52.

According to some — and we’re looking directly at you, Jerry Palm — the only way for the 27-4 Shockers to reach the NCAA Tournament is to become the 30-4 Shockers this weekend. It’s bizarre to think there’s no wiggle room for a team that has fared quite well in the NCAA Tournament over the past several years, but such is the state of the Valley, I suppose.

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Wichita State and Illinois State fought to a 17-1 stalemate during the regular season with Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa tied for third at 9-9. That’s right, eight games separated the two best teams in the Valley from the two next-best teams.

It will be a major upset and huge disappointment if Wichita State and Illinois State don’t get to Sunday’s championship game to settle their differences.

But given the Shockers’ history here, are they a lock to get to Sunday? Are we really having this discussion?

Yes, we are. We have to. That’s how bad it’s been for Wichita State in this city.

Mark Turgeon, who changed the course of Shocker basketball during his seven seasons as coach from 2000-07, couldn’t get out of the semifinals of the conference tournament. Four years in a row, from 2003-06, WSU lost in the semis before losing its quarterfinal matchup in 2007, after which Turgeon bolted for Texas A&M. St. Louis, it seemed, had gotten the best of him.

Gregg Marshall, who has done practically nothing but win since stepping on Wichita State’s campus in 2007, has done better than his predecessors here. But talk about a low bar.

Marshall’s WSU teams are 12-9 in the Valley tournament and have reached the championship game three times. Wichita State hasn’t left town without at least one win in the tournament since 2008, so some of the St. Louis blues have eased.

But most of the memories from this place are harsh, from Booker Woodfox and Creighton in 2009, to losing to the Bluejays in the 2013 championship game, to being unable to get past Illinois State and Northern Iowa in the past two semifinals.

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The Shockers have done so much to claim dominance over the Missouri Valley but it hasn’t translated to St. Louis, which is this team’s kryptonite. Wichita State has been flying at supersonic speed through the MVC regular season for a while now.

St. Louis, though, is the one place the Shockers have struggled to conquer. It’s been one giant yellow flag.

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