While Syracuse keeps finding new teeth to escape by the skin of, Wichita State (27-0, 14-0 Missouri Valley Conference) continues to add pelt after pelt to the wall, methodically. Tuesday, Salukis. Sunday, Aces: Shockers 84, Evansville 68. Hammer. Nail. Repeat.
Four more games.
Wichita lost twice to the Aces last season, and the last time the Shockers played at the Ford Center, they committed 22 turnovers in a 71-67 setback. Sunday? Just eight giveaways.
Four more games.
As of early Monday morning, TeamRankings.com had tapped the Shockers with a 69.3 percent chance of finishing the regular season unbeaten. No matter how you slice it, Wichita is fast running out of tilts. And fast running into history.
THREE TAKEAWAYS FROM WICHITA STATE 84, EVANSVILLE 68
:03 … Ron Baker (the healthy version) is feeling his oats again.
He’s back. Coach Gregg Marshall after the contest said it was a return of the "old Ron Baker," the one with the explosion, power and range of movement that the Shockers’ off-guard had flashed before a December injury to his left ankle. Baker’s 26 points in Evansville were a new career best, topping the 23 he dropped on BYU in Kansas City on Nov. 26.
The 6-foot-3 sophomore from Scott City, Kan., was able to knife through the Aces’ defense for layups underneath and finish on fast-break opportunities; his legs appeared strong on spot-up looks as well, as Baker drained a team-high three treys on six attempts. If Sunday’s Baker — 26 points, four rebounds, two assists and five steals — is the one Wichita will be getting for the next five-six weeks, watch out.
:02 … Could a big man be a big problem in Bracketville?
Evansville center Egidijus Mockevicius came in to Sunday averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds over his previous three games, so Valley foes hadn’t had much luck stopping the big Lithuanian this month.
The trouble is, the Shockers really didn’t, either: 19 points, 10 boards. Yikes. The 6-10 Mockevicius occasionally came off as tired or motioned for a rest, but his fatigue and coach Marty Simmons’ substitution patterns were the only things that probably kept him from having an even bigger day.
So: Was this a fluke afternoon by a hot post option? Or a harbinger of danger in the NCAA tourney if the Shockers run into a dominant scorer who’s 6-10 or taller? Wichita is a lot of things, but preternaturally tall isn’t one of them.
:01 … That 18-0 league mark is almost close enough to touch now.
No MVC team has run through the league gauntlet unbeaten since Bradley in 1985-86, so even if the quality of the opposition is on the decline, it could be mitigated by the pressure (and national media focus) on the chase for a perfect regular-season record. The last Division I squad to complete that trick was Saint Joseph’s in 2003-04 — and it earned the Hawks a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance.
"Everybody wants to knock you off," Hersey Hawkins, one of the stars of that aforementioned Bradley squad, told FOXSportsKansasCity.com recently. "So you have to be that much more focused when you’re playing. So, yeah, it’s going to be interesting to see how well they handle everybody really taking their best shot at them now."
From a resume standpoint, the heavy lifting for Wichita is over; none of its remaining four regular-season foes has an RPI rank better than 111th (Missouri State). TeamRankings.com has set the Shox’s odds of winning at 89.8 percent for the trip to Loyola on Wednesday; 94.7 percent for the home game with Drake on Saturday; 88.1 percent for the trip to Bradley on Feb. 25; and 95.1 percent for the home tilt with Bears on March 1. Anything can happen down the stretch (and probably will), but it’s hard to picture any of those programs’ "best shots" being enough to put the kibosh on the Shockers’ date with destiny.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at email@example.com.