Evansville-Wichita St. Preview
Wichita State’s Tekele Cotton put his conditioning to the test while chasing the Missouri Valley Conference’s leading scorer around countless screens in last month’s meeting with Evansville.
The league’s reigning defensive player of the year is now bracing for another strenuous assignment in D.J. Balentine.
The 13th-ranked Shockers try for their sixth straight win overall and 31st in a row at Charles Koch Arena on Sunday when they face a resurgent Evansville team that could play a major role in the conference race.
After he was a finalist for the Lefty Driesell National Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2013-14, Cotton has lived up to that billing while playing the role of lockdown defender once again.
The senior guard shined in one of his toughest tests on Jan. 17, helping hold Balentine to 16 points on 6-of-17 shooting in a 61-41 road win. The Shockers (24-3, 14-1) limited Evansville (19-8, 9-6) to a season-low total on 30.0 percent shooting.
Balentine averaged 25.3 points and hit 13 of 26 from 3-point range in three games against Wichita last season. The junior guard heads into this meeting scoring an MVC-best 19.4 per game while ranking among the league leaders with 53 3s.
”You just got to get ready mentally and really zone in on what they do offensively,” Cotton said after Wichita State’s fourth consecutive win in the series. ”It’s just basketball at the end of the day.”
Since its 27-game MVC winning streak ended in a 70-54 loss at Northern Iowa on Jan. 31, Wichita State has tightened things up defensively by limiting opponents to an average of 55.0 points on 35.6 percent shooting in the past five games.
After shooting 36.7 percent while missing 14 of 19 from 3-point range in a 68-62 win at Illinois State on Feb. 14, the Shockers shot a season-high 58.3 percent and hit 10 of 19 from 3 in Tuesday’s 84-62 win at Southern Illinois.
Shaquille Morris finished with a career-high 17 points and seven rebounds while making 7 of 8 shots. Fred VanVleet scored 13 in 28 minutes despite dealing with a nagging ankle injury.
”Confidence, and definitely my teammates trusting me and finding me with the ball in good situations,” Morris said. ”My motor is coming on.”
Ron Baker and Darius Carter led the way with 18 points apiece in the first matchup with the Aces. Baker has scored 20.3 per game and made 9 of 16 from beyond the arc over the past three meetings.
Following a season-worst three-game losing streak, Evansville has bounced back by shooting 50.4 percent from the field in winning its last three. Balentine poured in 24 points in Tuesday’s 61-52 home victory over Drake.
The Aces, seeking their first 20-win season since 1998-99, were the last team to win in Wichita in February 2013 as they pulled out a 59-56 victory. The Shockers have since won 30 in a row at home by an average of 18.9 points.
Evansville could have a say in who wins the regular-season MVC title as it looks to sweep host Northern Iowa on Wednesday after visiting Wichita State. The Shockers host the 11th-ranked Panthers in the finale next Saturday.