Wichita State’s basketball team is struggling.
Please, though, keep that in perspective. “Struggling” normally wouldn’t be a word used to describe a 12-2, 16th-ranked team that Sunday picked up its 20th consecutive Missouri Valley Conference win with a 70-62 victory over Illinois State, its 24th straight home victory.
But this is happening against the backdrop of an unbelievable 2013-14 season that saw the Shockers ride a 35-game winning streak and unbeaten record into the third round of the NCAA Tournament before losing a scintillating game to Kentucky.
And before that was a Final Four season, the second in Wichita State history.
Everybody’s heads have been in the clouds for a while now. But a stroll through the Missouri Valley Conference should include a few storms.
The Shockers have not had it easy the past four games: an overtime win over Hawaii, a close loss to George Washington, a surprisingly-competitive game with Drake in Des Moines and Sunday’s fist fight with Illinois State.
Wichita State has been outrebounded two games in a row, something that irritates its coach, Gregg Marshall. After swashbuckling through the Valley last season to the tune of 18-0, and starting this season with one non-conference blowout after another, the grind is back.
There should be grind.
“Yeah, it’s definitely fun to have competitive games,” Wichita State junior point guard Fred VanVleet said. “But you’ve got to win. It’s a challenge to win games and we’ve got to enjoy the process of getting better. I’m excited with this team and where we can go.”
The 2013-14 Shockers had an NBA power forward in Cleanthony Early and two giants inside with Chadrack Lufile and Kadeem Coleby. The 2014-15 Shockers are missing those guys. Especially Early, the guy who caused opposing coaches the most nightmares because of his offensive versatility and high motor.
Illinois State’s Dan Muller and the rest of the coaches around the Valley obviously are happy not to have to prepare for a Shocker team that includes Early.
“They don’t shoot at the 4-spot like they did last year,” Muller said. “And those two (centers) they had last year were an issue defensively. But because they don’t shoot it as well at the 4-position, they’re a little bit different. But their guards are better because they’re all a year older.”
The Shockers are still an excellent basketball team. Illinois State, which was missing its leading scorer in guard DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, and freshman forward Deontae Hawkins because of injuries, kept coming Sunday.
Every time it looked like Wichita State might pull away, the Redbirds, who lost by 19 and 15 to WSU last season, pulled the Shockers back. With senior guard Daishon Knight scoring a game-high 24 points, Illinois State was within two, 57-55, with just less than four minutes left.
The Shockers rely so heavily on their veterans, and those guys rarely let them down. Van Vleet, Ron Baker, Darius Carter and Tekele Cotton combined for 53 of the 70 points. Junior Evan Wessel, back from a foot injury, had four assists, three steals, acrobatic hops on a table and a water cooler cart while chasing loose balls and too many floor burns to count.
Cotton and Baker played 38 minutes; VanVleet played 36. Developing depth, especially in the backcourt, is a work in progress.
But how many college basketball teams aren’t works in progress? This is normal, people. That 35-0 stuff is great, but it’s once-in-a-lifetime great, if that. It’s not normal. It never will be.
“I mean, it’s not going to be pretty every game,” VanVleet said. “Everybody got caught up in last year, but don’t forget how difficult it was for us during the Final Four year. We lost three Valley games in a row that year and we had all kinds of issues.
“Keep everything in perspective. We’re still winning. We’re starting a new year and it’s a new conference and we’re grinding, trying to get better every day. We’ve just got to find a better rhythm, offensively and defensively.”
The Shockers won all nine of their MVC home games last season by double digits, including four by 20 or more points. That’s an indication of just how good Wichita State was, but also of how mediocre the conference had become.
There are early signs that the Valley is a more dangerous place. And two of those signs, hard-fought wins over Drake and Illinois State, involve WSU.
This seems to be working out the way it should work out. The other nine teams have no interest in being the Shockers’ doormat again and there looks to be a real race brewing.
Wichita State is still the clear-cut class of the MVC. But maybe Northern Iowa, Evansville, Loyola, Missouri State, Illinois State, Indiana State, Bradley, Southern Illinois and Drake are sick and tired of being sick and tired.
The Valley needs to be healthy again. And maybe, just maybe, it’s getting there.