The 24-0 Wichita State Shockers aren't lucky -- they're straight-up good, and Final Four good
FEB 06, 2014 12:13a ET
And here's the crazy part: The Shockers were actually kind of lousy, by their standards.
Well, maybe not so much lousy as a step (or six) out of sync. Wichita State went into Wednesday night's showdown with Missouri Valley Conference spoiler Indiana State averaging 10.2 turnovers per game; it committed 12. The Shockers were averaging 17.2 fouls; they committed 21.
The Shox had been rolling at a plus-8.4 rebounding margin per contest; the Sycamores outboarded them by one. They had been hitting on 72.8 percent of their free-throw attempts; on this night, they were a cover-your-eyes 19 for 30, 63.3 percent.
They won anyway.
Survived. Escaped. Won. Whatever. At this point, it doesn't matter. It all means the same dang thing.
When you're 24-0, there are no style points, no nitpicky gray area in the "24" part. The only number that counts is that big fat ZERO at the end, the balloon that nobody seems to be able to pop. Lord knows, the Sycs tried.
And now we start to seriously ask the question of whether anybody actually can, at least through what's left of the regular season. With Wednesday's 65-58 victory at Indiana State out of the way, the Fighting Marshalls (11-0 MVC) have just one regular-season tilt left against a Valley squad with a winning record in conference play -- and it's at home, versus Missouri State (6-5 MVC, 16-7 overall) on March 1.
At Northern Iowa? Tough building. Good coach. Wounded roster.
Vs. Southern Illinois? The Salukis have overcome a lot, but ...
At Evansville? Another tough building. Young team.
At Loyola? As of Wednesday afternoon, the Ramblers were 2-5 vs. the RPI Top 150.
Vs. Drake? Uh-uh.
At Bradley? See Drake.
So there's Sheriff Gregg Marshall, the baddest hombre of the Plains, still standing, while the rest of the Valley runs out of bullets.
The key to perfection -- something no Division I team has pulled off in the regular season since Saint Joseph's in 2003-04 -- is surviving the nights when you're less than perfect. The Shockers were hungry Wednesday. The Sycamores (18-6 overall, 7-3 MVC) were flat-out desperate. This was the last chance for a signature regular-season victory in Terre Haute, a Post-it note to stick in the back of the minds of the NCAA tourney selection committee. The hosts played desperate, too, outrebounding the bigger Shox at the half, 17-12, and even outscoring them in the paint at the break, 10-8.
It was just the 14th time in the last three years Wichita has been outrebounded; the Shox had outboarded the Sycs by 14 in their meeting at the Roundhouse last month.
This wasn't for lack of effort on Indiana State's part -- just the lack of a closing kick.
With 1:29 left in a two-point game, Wichita forward Darius Carter threw the ball away, opening the door; 15 seconds later, Sycs forward Justin Gant whiffed on a layup that would've tied the score. The Shox broke downcourt the other way and senior Cleanthony Early (19 points, five rebounds) swooped in for a driving layup, getting hacked in the process. The New York native drained the free throw to complete the three-point play, capping a five-point swing and sticking a giant flag on the backside of the MVC's Larry Bird Player of the Year award in the process.
And here's another dirty little secret to Wichita's success: When you start three straight-nasty guards, it's hard -- not impossible, just really, really hard -- for all of them to have bad nights at the same time. Do a nice defensive number on point guard Fred VanVleet (six points, three assists, two turnovers) or wing man Ron Baker (1 of 4 from beyond the arc), and underrated Tekele Cotton drops 14 points and four assists in your backyard.
While the confidence and reliability of a Carl Hall is missed on the block, with the three-headed post monster of Kadeem Coleby, Darius Carter and Chadrack Lufile, Marshall can ride the hot hand -- or the hand least cold, or the hand that doesn't happen to be in foul trouble. In this case, it was Lufile, a 6-foot-9 Canadian with granite shoulders who accounted for eight points, 11 boards and four giant free-throw makes down the stretch.
Scrappy, the Trees are. Tall, they ain't.
"They're the team that we've kind of (emulated), (as far as) the type of players you want to recruit and the type of things you want to do with your program," Indiana State coach Greg Lansing told FOXSportsKansasCity.com this week when asked about Wichita's dominance. "We knew we had to get more athletic and had to bring people in to contend with guys like this. Now, we're as deep and as athletic as we've been since I've been here."
And, on this stage, that still wasn't enough. Lansing's Sycs are legit. The Shockers are special. Just how special, we're all about to find out.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.