Evansville-Wichita St. Preview
ST. LOUIS (AP) – The last school to go unbeaten in the regular season, Saint Joseph’s in 2004, lost its first game in the Atlantic 10 tournament by 20 points to Xavier.
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall plans on throwing that factoid at his players before they face Evansville on Friday in the quarterfinals of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. The reminder: No one’s invincible.
It’s also not the end of the world if the Shockers lose. After dropping that tournament opener following a nine-day layoff, top-seeded St. Joseph’s advanced to the East Regional final in 2004 before losing to Oklahoma State by two points.
”They know they have to play well, and I probably will mention it,” Marshall said. ”I’m very upfront with them. Yeah, I’ll let them know that.”
Indiana State (21-9), Northern Iowa (16-14) and Missouri State (19-11) are the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 seeds in a field with one marquee entrant playing for a potential No. 1 NCAA tournament seed and the rest needing to win out to earn the Valley’s automatic bid.
The second-ranked Shockers are 31-0 and went 18-0 in conference action, beating every team twice. They’re the No. 1 seed for the second time in three years as they start tournament play against No. 9 seed Evansville (14-18), which beat Drake 69-61 in the first round Thursday night.
Northern Iowa has won three in a row and sixth seed Southern Illinois has won three of four. The Shockers are not worried about what happened a decade ago, just looking to get that hot hand in a tournament that’s often wide open. In 23 years in St. Louis, just seven top seeds have won the tourney.
Indiana State has its best seed since the 2000 team was No. 1, but the Sycamores have lost three in a row. Missouri State has won two of three but lost in the regular-season finale by 23 at Wichita State on Saturday.
The Aces have history against them Friday. Since the tournament expanded to all 10 teams in 1997, play-in winners are 1-32 in the quarterfinals.
Earlier this week, Wichita State cleaned up off the court with sophomore point guard Fred VanVleet beating teammates Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker for conference player of the year. It’s the first time a school swept the top three spots.
Early leads the Shockers with 15.8 points per game, followed by Baker (13.1) and VanVleet (11.9), who topped the conference with an average of 5.3 assists and an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.00 that ranks fourth in the nation.
Marshall was a near unanimous choice as MVC coach of the year for the third straight season.
He believes the Shockers have already done enough for a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs, but noted ”my opinion doesn’t count for much.”
”Regardless, I really don’t think it matters,” Marshall added. ”It’s who’s playing the best in those pivotal games in late March and April.”
Wichita State made the Final Four as a No. 9 seed last spring, getting an at-large bid after losing in the conference championship to Creighton as the No. 2 seed. The Shockers last won the conference tournament in 1987 and lost in the semifinals both times they’ve been the No. 1 seed previously, in 2006 and 2012.
This may be the year, considering all but six of their victories are by double digits. The closest call was a three-point overtime win at Missouri State on Jan. 11, and in December they had a pair of five-point wins at Saint Louis and Alabama.
So far, Marshall has been able to keep everyone happy. All are sharing in the success.
”That’s what we’ve got, talented guys who are team-first,” Marshall said. ”Our guys are unbelievable.”
Sophomore center Egidijus Mockevicius tied a career-high with 19 points, had a career-best eight blocks and grabbed 10 rebounds for Evansville in the opening round Thursday.
D.J. Balentine, seventh in the nation with 22.5 points per game, scored 30 as the Aces won their third straight.
Wichita State took both meetings with Evansville this season after the Aces handed the Shockers two of their nine losses in 2012-13.