Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz: WSU keeps foot on the Valley by thumping Drake

When Drake’s Kale Abrahamson hit a three-pointer to pull the the Bulldogs into a 25-25 tie with Wichita State late in the first half Thursday afternoon at Koch Arena, no one in the sellout crowd considered canceling their New Year’s Eve plans.

Their parties were still on and the champagne remained on ice.

That’s because Drake isn’t capable of beating Wichita State at Koch Arena and it was only a matter of time before the Bulldogs stopped making threes and the Shockers got on a roll and everybody could watch Ryan Seacrest in peace, at least as much peace as you can have watching Ryan Seacrest.

Wichita State won 67-47. After that three-pointer by Abrahamson, the Shockers went on a 21-2 run, covering the remaining 3:26 of the first half and the first six minutes of the second. It was just a matter of time.

WSU’s home winning streak, which reached 38 with Thursday’s win, will end someday. But to Drake? Not a chance.

The Bulldogs are once again destined for the lower half of the Missouri Valley Conference while the Shockers’ destiny is foggy.

Wichita State might once again do something big this season. Or the Shockers might not. It’s too early to tell because this is a team still rounding into form around senior stars Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker.

“We’re getting better,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “It’s still not where it needs to be or where it can be, but it’s getting better.”

Things have been sketchy for the Shockers since VanVleet injured his hamstring — it’s still bothering him, by the way — in early November. Then center Anton Grady was felled by a spinal concussion in Orlando, not to mention the foot injury to freshman guard Landry Shamet.

“We’ve probably had less than 12 practices all year with the team that we expected to have and most of them have been recently and that’s not even counting (Shamet),” Marshall said. “It’s good to get to practice with everyone so that they can be in different rotations. Kind of like Fred and Ron have been yin and yang for three years, now these other guys are getting enough practice time so they’re going to get better at that, also.”

Baker was scoreless until hitting a deep three with 2:25 left in the first half. He added 11 points in the second. VanVleet scored 13 and sophomore Zach Brown scored 10.

Brown, Shaq Morris, Rashard Kelly and Conner Frankamp are sophomores who will soon have a much bigger stake in the program. They combined for 30 points and 17 rebounds Thursday.

“We want to be able to score inside and out, move the ball better, screen better, cut better and shoot better when we’re wide open,” Marshall said. “We had a ton of open shots in the first half that we just didn’t knock down.”

The Shockers’ 36.4 percent shooting in the first half brought their percentage for the season dangerously close to falling below 40 percent. Marshall’s teams have shot at least 43.8 percent in each of the past seven seasons and have been above 45 percent three times.

Defense is the Shockers’ calling card, for sure, and it was on proud display again against Drake. But Marshall wants to see a crisper, more efficient offense. The kind he saw in the second half, when WSU shot 52.4 percent and outscored Drake 34-22.

VanVleet and Baker are, of course, the straws that stir Wichita State’s drink. But there’s no need to limit access to the fountain.

Brown, Morris, Kelly and Frankamp combined to make 11 of 24 shots and Frankamp, who had eight points on 3-of-7 shooting, looks more comfortable with each passing game, although he’s still in disbelief when he misses an open shot.

It’s going to take their continued development, as well as some more scoring from seniors Grady and Evan Wessel, for the Shockers to reach their potential. Or at least the potential Marshall is convinced is there.

Testing progress will be a challenge in the Valley, where only Northern Iowa and perhaps Evansville appear to be serious challengers. And before you ask me to put 12-2 Southern Illinois in the mix, allow me to wait for more evidence of the Salukis’ apparent improvement.

Wichita State has another gimme Sunday at Bradley, but next week could be interesting with a Wednesday home game against Evansville followed by a Jan. 9 game on the road at SIU.

Maybe?

Yeah, I’m not convinced, either. But there are some cracks in Wichita State’s armor and maybe, just maybe, the Shockers won’t roll through this conference for a third straight season.

But WSU has now won 36 of its past 37 conference games since losing to Evansville and Creighton in the final two Valley games of the 2012-13 season. Twenty-eight of those wins have been by double digits.

The Shockers may not be the team they were the past two seasons yet, but they look like they’re on their way. And the rest of the MVC isn’t keeping up.

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