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Wichita State continues to show national-quality credentials with MVC title

March 7, 2017 Columns No Comments

Amid the endless talk of bubbles, power ratings, schedules and quality wins this season, some things seemed to have been almost lost about Wichita State basketball.

The Shockers’ reload this year should, frankly, be one of the bigger stories nationally of this season. Put it this way: if there was any doubt at the start of the season, there shouldn’t be any more now-Wichita State has become one of the premier programs in the country.

The Shockers entered this season minus two players now in the NBA, two living legends at a school with a rich basketball history. In all, five seniors departed after last year-three of them part of a Final Four as freshmen, an undefeated regular season as sophomores and nine NCAA Tournament wins over four years-and this year had only two lightly used seniors, one of who was only recently put on scholarship.

And they haven’t missed a beat.

By the end of the season, this Wichita State team is being mentioned by peers as at a similar level as two historic teams from recent years. And the Shockers did little to discourage such lofty comparisons in this year’s Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, which they wrapped up with a 71-51 win over Illinois State Sunday in St. Louis.

In one of the most highly anticipated MVC Tournament championship games in the conference’s now 26-year run in St. Louis, Wichita State was clearly a focused, mentally tough team. The Shockers weren’t perfect, but they were plenty good enough, putting behind them some losses at Arch Madness in recent years to win their first MVC tourney title since 2014 and the second in Gregg Marshall’s highly successful 10-year run.

“I thought we played very well against a very good team,” said Marshall. “I thought it was a very thorough performance.

“We defended well. We made our free throws. We got the ball inside. We rebounded well. We shot it well. So that results in a 20-point win, and that’s hard to do against that team.”

With the win, Wichita State defeated Illinois State for the second time in three meetings this season. It will play in the NCAA Tournament for the sixth straight year, entering on a 15-game winning streak since a January loss at ISU that players and coach noted after the game was a breaking point for the team.

“I think what clicked, I mean, we hate to lose, but I think at that point in time, it was the basketball gods looking out for us, opening our eyes,” said junior forward Rashard Kelly. “We went back and watched film of that game and realized one through 16, nobody played a good game or up to their potential. Every day (after we) just pushed ourselves to reach and do the best we can. I think it kind of carried over since then, and I think that loss against Illinois State was kind of a wakeup call for us.”

The game after that loss-a hard-earned 82-65 win over Evansville where the Shockers actually trailed well into the second half-also marked the move of Connor Frankamp into the starting lineup and the move of redshirt freshman Landry Shamet to the point. Since then, WSU’s backcourt has been superb, and it was Frankamp with a career-high 19 in the MVC tourney final.

“The turning point, I think, if you had to pick one thing, would have been giving Landry Shamet the ball and him running the point,” said Marshall. “He’s been really good. Conner’s really come on…I think it’s pretty clear he’s playing with a different level of confidence and moxie and shooting the ball brilliantly.

“Shaq Morris has been up and down throughout his career, and he’s been playing some of his best basketball. So there’s a couple other things to go along with Landry assuming the point. And I think Rashard Kelly, he’s a guy that is a different player. He’s a different player than he was earlier in the year.”

In some ways, Sunday’s game was a disappointment. It wasn’t a work of art (neither team shot better than 38%). Illinois State’s frontcourt spent much of the game in foul trouble, and the lack of flow in the game clearly took a toll on the Redbirds in the second half, leaving them frustrated.

Of course, much of the frustration also was induced by Wichita State’s toughness, something ISU head coach Dan Muller noted numerous times afterwards. The Shockers defend. They hammer the glass. They play their tails off.

They are physical inside and knock down shots from the outside. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone shooting it better right now than Frankamp, who barely even rippled the net on each of his six made field goals Sunday.

Whether one is a Wichita State fan or just a follower of college basketball in general, it’s worth pausing for a bit just to consider what a program Marshall has built. For a 13-year stretch from 1989-2002, the Shockers had 10 losing seasons, and never a record better than a game above .500. Mark Turgeon eventually took WSU to a Sweet 16 in 2006, though the program slid some the following year, and then went 11-20 and 17-17 in Marshall’s first two seasons.

Since then, Wichita State has won at least 25 games eight straight years. A Final Four, another Sweet 16, an undefeated regular season, an NIT title and four MVC regular season crowns in the last five years are the sign of a program that has become more than just a nice story. Like Gonzaga, this is a burgeoning national power.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Frankamp. “He pushed us every single day to be the best players we can be as well as the best people we can be. We go out there and try to please him and he knows exactly what he’s doing. He draws up a great game plan for us every single day and every single game we come out and play.

“We just try to work as hard as we possibly can and learn from our mistakes, but he drives us every day. It’s a great quality he has, for sure.”

Just where Wichita State goes from here in the NCAA Tournament is the next question. It’s not an easy one to answer, though the team’s recent history in the postseason suggests one’s expectations should be higher than lower.

The so-called advanced metrics love the Shockers. Have loved them the last two years. It’s almost certain that a big part of the sudden recent media bandwagon worried about WSU missing the NCAA Tournament was that the team has rated high in its beloved “advanced” metrics. (It’s not as if this is the first team outside the football tier that was in danger of missing the NCAAs with a glossy record)

If we’re honest, though, there have been plenty of examples of teams that have graded highly in these ratings and beaten up on teams below them in the rankings, yet when facing top-level competition have not performed to that standard. Pittsburgh seemed to do it regularly for a stretch there. Vanderbilt last year was a prime example. Saint Mary’s may be one this year, though like Wichita State, the Gaels’ lack of chances in these games makes it foolish to make assumptions that they can’t win them.

The last two years, the Shockers have lost most of the biggest-name games on their schedule. Of course, there are several catches to that. Last year, the team lost star guard Fred VanVleet to injury early on, and this year WSU was replacing VanVleet, fellow now-NBA guard Ron Baker, and that total of five seniors-“3 1/2 starters, if you will,” as Marshall noted-and clearly needed some time to jell.

That Wichita State played its brand-name opponents early in the season-very early-isn’t its own fault. And at some point, domination is domination. The Shockers (and Illinois State, for that matter) owned the MVC this year, still the 12th-ranked conference in the RPI, and that achievement alone should’ve proven their worthiness.

And if that’s not enough, then it’s also become time to acknowledge history. A program with the recent postseason success Wichita State has had is not a fluke. This is a program built to win big, and win in March. And now with the Arch Madness tourney title in its back pocket, this team can show just that.

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