It isn't always pretty. It often comes with catcalls from national critics about a weak schedule. But you can't deny this about Wichita State: No matter the circumstances, the Shockers keep finding new and increasingly nerve-wracking ways to win.
Ron Baker stepped up beautifully in the point-guard role with a team-high 19 points and Cleanthony Early added 18, as No. 4 Wichita State scratched and clawed its way to a 78-67 victory over an upset-minded Southern Illinois squad to win its 26th straight contest Tuesday night.
The Shockers trailed at halftime for the ninth time this season and played surprisingly disjointed basketball, while the Charles Koch Arena crowd seemingly kept its boys motivated all night. Early and Baker led five double-digit scorers, but they struggled mightily from the field at points and saw their vaunted defense show signs of wear.
Southern Illinois guard Anthony Beane topped all scorers with 25 points, breaking the Shockers with consistent dribble-drive penetration. But Beane was too often a one-man show, and Wichita State continued its trend of closing out with a torrid run to pull away late.
Ahead, 64-61, with less than four minutes remaining, a Nick Wiggins three-pointer with 3:47 on the clock started a 12-3 run to put the game out of reach. Baker hit clutch shots and got out in transition to stretch the lead to double digits with just under two minutes left, capping off a scintillating second-half run from the sophomore guard.
Wichita State is the first team since the 2007-08 Memphis Tigers to begin a season 26-0. Led by future No. 1 overall pick Derrick Rose, the Tigers' run ended in their 27th game, but they made it all the way to the national championship game before losing an instant classic against Kansas.
The Shockers hope they share Memphis' postseason fate. But, even after another tough win, it's looking increasingly like they won't be losing a regular-season contest anytime soon.
"It's cool, you know?" Early said, per the Associated Press (via ESPN). "But we take it game by game, day by day. I don't think we're looking at an undefeated season because you have to beat the team that's in front of you."
Wichita State came into Tuesday night having gone through the biggest road gauntlet of its season. Back-to-back road victories against Indiana State and Northern Iowa are about as difficult as the Missouri Valley Conference gets, which has been both a reason for criticism and a sense of pride for Gregg Marshall's team. As ESPN Stats & Info noted, the BPI rankings gave the Shockers nearly an 80-percent chance of getting through the regular season undefeated:
According to ESPN BPI, Wichita State has 79.7% chance of ending reg. season undefeated, compared to 6.5% for Syracuse pic.twitter.com/TsO3JAL8Af— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 11, 2014
They came out looking like a team that was a little too overconfident. Southern Illinois held a slight but consistent lead throughout the first half, going into the break ahead, 33-32, behind Beane's 14 points. The first 20 minutes saw Wichita State have nearly as many turnovers (seven) as made field goals (10), while shooting 2-of-14 from beyond the three-point arc.
The second half started with much more of the same—to the point where it looked like an upset could be in order. The Salukis kept firing back anytime Wichita State attempted to take control of the game, mirroring their first-half outlook by holding steady at a one-possession advantage.
But then, Early came to life with an and-one jumper to give the home team the lead, Baker followed with swishes on back-to-back possessions and suddenly the switch had been flipped. An 8-2 run took a 49-46 advantage and instantly stretched it out to nine points in a little over a minute, and the Shockers held on against mini runs from Southern Illinois from there.
To put it mildly, Marshall knows this won't be the type of win that quells questions about Wichita State's national profile, per the AP:
Just survive. That was not our best effort, obviously. They get a lot of credit for that. They had a great game plan. They packed it in and we didn't make any shots from the arc. It was a good strategy. Finally we made some in the second half and pulled away slowly, but give them credit. They played well.
Ranked fourth in the country despite being one of just two teams still undefeated (No. 1 Syracuse being the other), there are some who theorize Marshall and Co. couldn't hack it in a major conference. The Shockers have not played a ranked opponent all season and likely won't until the NCAA tournament. Ken Pomeroy's advanced strength of schedule ratings place Wichita State just No. 122 in the nation.
Barely beating a 10-16 team won't improve that mark, no matter if the Salukis came into Tuesday winners of four straight. Pomeroy equated it to scraping by a No. 16 seed in March:
Unfair to judge Wichita State on this game, but SIU as a road team is basically 16-seed quality.— Ken Pomeroy (@kenpomeroy) February 12, 2014
While that may be true, there are plenty of major-conference teams that have struggled over the years against No. 16 seeds, only to win and have tournament success. The Shockers are three straight games into a questionable run, considering the competition, but you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who believed in a guy named Cleanthony Early last season, either.
And all that Wichita State team did was go to the Final Four.
|Bola Olaniyan, F||C|
|Desmar Jackson, G||B-|
|Anthony Beane, G||A|
|Sean O'Brien, G||C+|
|Tyler Smithpeters, G||C-|
|Davante Drinkard, F||C|
|Bronson Verhines, F||C|
|Dawson Verhines, G||C|
|Jalen Pendleton, G||B|
|Mike Balogun, G||C|
|Kadeem Coleby, C||C|
|Cleanthony Early, F||A-|
|Fred VanVleet, G||C-|
|Tekele Cotton, G||B-|
|Ron Baker, G||A-|
|Derail Green, F||C|
|Chadrack Lufile, F||C|
|Darius Carter, F||B|
|Nick Wiggins, G||B-|
|Evan Wessel, G||C|
Players of the Game: Anthony Beane (G, Southern Illinois), Cleanthony Early (F, Wichita State)
While he's almost anonymous on the national stage, Tuesday night was par for the course for Beane. The sophomore guard has been on fire the past couple of weeks, scoring 20 or more points in five straight games and leading a conference resurgence for the Salukis.
Wichita State did a poor job throughout the first half and early in the second of pressuring Beane, allowing him space to hit open jumpers and crash toward the rim. Beane is a solid ball-handler but vulnerable to mistakes and doesn't look to pass much, but the Shockers were consistently unable to capitalize on his weaknesses. He had three assists, double his 1.5 average coming into the game, and was a two-man show with Jackson.
It was interesting to see Jackson, the senior guard who leads the team in scoring, once again take a back seat to his red-hot teammate. The Salukis have no chance to reach the Big Dance without a run to a conference title, but that isn't as big of a long shot as it once seemed. The dynamic between Beane and Jackson is special, and Wichita State learned the hard way what can happen when you take this team lightly.
Early didn't have his best game. Unlike Beane, this performance was not indicative of some midseason streak of excellence. Early began the game making one of his first six shots, struggling especially from long range. The only headway he made was getting to the foul line, with Southern Illinois' zone unable to stymie him without fouling.
The second half was obviously far kinder. One made shot turned into another, and soon, Early was leading the charge to put away the game. Overall, it's a performance Early and his teammates will probably take. He wound up with 18 points on just eight field-goal attempts, a solid rate he owes entirely to free throws.
One could easily make a case for Baker getting top honors, considering the way he stepped up on both ends. Baker hit big shots when Wichita State needed them in the second half, found open cutters and was generally sensational in his own right.
Early gets the nod because he found ways to score in both halves. If Early could be as consistent from the floor as he is at the charity stripe, he might be in the National Player of the Year conversation.
Something tells me neither he nor Baker will be losing any sleep tonight.
Wichita State will leave the friendly confines of Charles Koch Arena for a contest Sunday against Evansville. The Aces are just 3-9 in the Missouri Valley, so 27-0 seems very much in reach. Southern Illinois will try to build on its near-upset on Saturday in a road game against Indiana State.