Part of the reason Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet didn’t test their professional stock after last season was because, they said, they wanted to accomplish something special as seniors at Wichita State.
After a Final Four, a run to 35-0 and a Sweet 16 season that included a win over Kansas, sitting on the NCAA Tournament fence isn’t what they had in mind.
But after Saturday’s 57-52 overtime loss to Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament semifinals, the NIT was a topic of conversation.
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“I don’t know, I won’t be sitting in that room,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said of the NCAA selection committee, whose 68-team field will be announced next Sunday. “I hope people have watched us play during the course of the season. We’ve won 24 games and we went — what did we go? — 17-3 in this league . . . So we’ll see. Again, I hope that (we) get the opportunity to play in the big dance. But if not, I’m sure they’ll try to win the NIT.”
The Shockers are obviously good enough to play in the NCAA Tournament. If only it were that simple. But with an RPI that is likely to fall into the 40s and a discombobulated season filled with similar teams with questionable fates, the Shockers will spend an excruciating week worrying about something they do not control.
In much the same way they haven’t controlled St. Louis over the years. Once again, a Wichita State team with high aspirations leaves this city with heartache.
The Shockers hit the floor Saturday with incredible defensive energy and held Northern Iowa scoreless for nearly eight minutes. The Panthers nearly suffocated from Wichita State’s pressure.
In those eight minutes, though, the Shockers managed 10 points. Their defensive vitality never crossed over to offense. Marshall spent the day looking for a spark, somebody who could make a shot. He unlocked every box he could think of, but none produced a shooter.
“We used about everything we have offensively,” he said.
The Shockers made 2 of 24 three-pointers. They shot 31.7 percent overall.
The game was eerily reminiscent of the Shockers-Panthers matchup at Koch Arena on Feb. 13, when UNI won 53-50 and held the Shockers to 20 of 66 overall and 7 of 31 from the three-point line.
Less than a month earlier, though, Wichita State had one of its best offensive games against the Panthers in Cedar Falls, shooting 56.5 percent and making 8 of 15 three-pointers in a 74-55 win.
So what happened?
Only the basketball gods know and they can’t be disturbed for such minutia. Suffice it to say that Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson is a pretty smart guy and somewhere along the way he figured out an adjustment. Or maybe WSU just had back-to-back clunkers against UNI, once again proving the unpredictability of this stuff.
VanVleet had a terrible tournament. Stuck in foul trouble during Friday’s quarterfinal win, he was outplayed Saturday by pesky Northern Iowa point guard Wes Washpun, who took advantage of defensive mismatches created by UNI ball screens to go to work on the Shockers.
His drive into the lane for a basket and a resulting foul against Evan Wessel with 4:57 left gave the Panthers their first lead of the day, 45-43. The Shockers weren’t done, but they had a terrible possession at the end of regulation and never found offensive rhythm. They looked like mismatched dancers on too many possessions.
VanVleet blamed himself as he thoughtfully answered questions after the game.
“At the end of the day, 2 for 24 is not going to get it done,” VanVleet said. “And 3 for 14 for the starting point guard is not going to get it done in two days here in St. Louis.”
Marshall listened with his eyes down, staring a hole through a box score he wished had different numbers.
“I didn’t want Fred to blame himself at all,” Marshall said. “The buck stops with me. It’s my fault. That’s the way I’ve always done it for 18 years. We win as a team, but when we lose it’s my fault.”
That a team with two iconic seniors, a hugely-successful coach and 24 wins is dependent on catching a break or two from a selection committee is difficult to fathom. And there a bunch of factors as to why the Shockers’ fate has come to this, not the least of which is a lackluster Missouri Valley Conference.
The Shockers lost three games in four days at the AdvoCare Invitational in Florida in November without VanVleet. They were beaten at Tulsa and Seton Hall without a healthy VanVleet. They lost to Northern Iowa and Illinois State during the regular season, games in which VanVleet was a combined 5 of 25 from the floor. And he was 2 of 9 in Saturday’s loss.
“Anytime I don’t play well, our team usually doesn’t play well,” VanVleet said. “So I mean, give Northern Iowa all the credit in the world for that, but I just wasn’t very good today.”
No, he wasn’t. But here’s hoping VanVleet and Baker, who made 5 of 18 shots Saturday and missed all five of his three-pointers, get another shot in the NCAA Tournament. For these guys to finish their college careers anywhere else would be an injustice.