Incredible Wichita State is back and can run the table in the MVC — again

Just when you took your mind off them, the Wichita State Shockers got really good again and became one of the best stories and most dangerous teams in college basketball. Turns out that three-game losing streak and 2-4 start in November was just the right smoke screen to deflect our attention and lower the expectation bar on Gregg Marshall’s group.

“For the general public that’s not with us every day, it probably is surprising, but ever since I came back (from injury) it hasn’t been,” Shockers senior guard Fred VanVleet told CBS Sports. “We weren’t at full strength early on, but we haven’t used that as an excuse, and because we haven’t used that an excuse, we’ve gotten better.”

Shame on us for doubting.

As college basketball shifts into the ever-critical month of February, the Shockers are back in a big way in what’s amounting to an end-of-an-era season. WSU, now 17-5, is making a blaze toward its fifth straight NCAA Tournament and doing it in the final year of eligibility for its two stars who’ve brought the program to its highest heights, VanVleet and Ron Baker. The pair led the program to a 112-20 record in their careers.

In Missouri Valley play WSU is a splendid 64-9 with VanVleet and Baker in the fold, but has just one postseason conference championship. The Shockers were felled in 2013 — the year they reached the Final Four — by Doug McDermott and Creighton in the Valley’s title game. Last season, Illinois State punched Marshall’s team out of the MVC bracket in the semis. Wichita State has become the kings of the MVC yet only has that one Arch Madness crown in the VanVleet/Baker period.

VanVleet told me by phone on Wednesday night after Wichita State’s latest drubbing over an MVC foe (76-55 over Southern Illinois) those two missed conference tournament titles irk him. A self-described perfectionist, VanVleet said he and Baker are acutely invested to making their final year amount to something special. It’s going to be hard to achieve “special” status considering all this program has accomplished while those two have been in uniform: a Final Four in 2013; an undefeated regular season and No. 1 seed in 2014; and another Sweet 16 appearance last year, which included a victory in the second round over the most cherished of standoffish enemies, Kansas.

“We talk about it every day almost,” VanVleet said after dishing a career-high 11 assists against SIU — plus 12 points and four steals in 27 minutes.

That showing came one game after he scored a career-high 32 on Sunday against another viable MVC team at Evansville. Not bad for a guy who was inexplicably left of the latest Cousy Award list.

“It’s really pissed me off,” Marshall said by phone on Thursday afternoon, regarding the Cousy Award snub. “It’s laughable. It’s mean and laughable for whatever they would exclude him. He’s by far the most accomplished point guard in the country.”

VanVleet doesn’t care about the opinions of the Cousy Award committee, though. He doesn’t care about the opinions of most people he doesn’t know. He doesn’t even want to get to a point where he concerns himself with the opinions of selection committee members. Though Wichita State is on pacing itself to comfortable at-large status, VanVleet doesn’t want to even put that choice on their table.

“Especially coming out of Orlando, we’re like listen, man, I didn’t come back to have to go to St. Louis to win to get in the tournament,” VanVleet said. “You don’t talk about completing a season perfect or anything like that, but understanding the urgency that we’re not going to play around with it. Unfortunately we don’t get that luxury that these other big-time schools gets where they can lose five games early and people don’t bat an eye.”

Feast your eyes on this: Wichita State is playing with as much urgency and dominance as anyone in college basketball over the past month. VanVleet referenced Orlando, which is where the Shockers stumbled in late November and lost important opportunities against the likes of USC, Alabama and Iowa. Those three straight losses came after a setback on Nov. 17 against Tulsa. By early December, many openly wondered if this would be a lost last season for Fred and Ron. But due to a bum hamstring, VanVleet wasn’t on the floor against USC, Bama and Iowa — and neither was Anton Grady, a valuable frontcourt player who went down with a scary injury in the Alabama game. The Shockers were also without Kansas transfer Conner Frankamp and backup point guard Landry Shamet, who’s still unsure if he’ll return this season from a stress fracture in his left foot.

“There were some dark thoughts,” Marshall said. “We’re 2-4, and in the Missouri Valley Conference, we’ve lost most of our chances to get quality wins. I was very honest with them. This was not directed at Fred or Ron or those guys. It was directed at the young guys. … They don’t understand how difficult it is to get an at-large.”

The team was judged and doubted while it was so far from full strength. Now that it is operating nearly at full strength, WSU is looking more like the team that was picked 10th in the preseason AP poll and nothing like the unranked afterthought the Shockers became in early December. Since WSU’s gotten right it’s looked so damn good. It’s a team built to win big in the regular season and take on almost any challenger come March — especially in this unpredictable year at the top in college basketball.

And you can’t even account the turnaround on an easier league schedule. Wichita State has a win over Utah and beat UNLV when the Runnin’ Rebels were were 7-1 with victories over surefire NCAA tourney teams Indiana and Oregon. Now the Shockers are winning games by an average of 19.5 points in conference play — the highest in-league margin of victory for any team in college basketball.

“We’re not talking about running the table or how many we can lose, and that may explain the margin that we’re winning by,” Marshall said.

If anyone wants to doubt Wichita State’s credentials, since VanVleet returned on Dec. 5 the Shockers are 14-1 with their only loss coming by four points on the road — in overtime — against Seton Hall. (VanVleet said that game was the most important outcome of the season.)

“Referees didn’t cooperate; Seton Hall lived at the line,” Marshall said. “If you look at the box score, you’ll see all of their points in overtime came on free throws.”

VanVleet is averaging a team-best 14.4 points and 5.7 assists since his return. Six Shockers are averaging north of seven points and three rebounds. Wichita State has a turnover margin of 24.3 percent, which ranks fourth in the country. The defense is top-10 in points allowed per possession and the offense is creeping up on top 20 in efficiency.

“To be decimated the way we were, they heard the message and are on point,” Marshall said. “We’ve got tremendous quality depth. Markis McDuffie, Anton Grady, Shaquille Morris, Conner Frankamp. They come of the bench and we don’t take a drop-off.”

The Shockers are back in the polls, now ranked 21st and climbing. They’re No. 11 in KenPom. WSU is riding a 12-game win streak, one of the longest in the country, and WSU’s 43 consecutive victories at Koch Arena is now the best home streak in college hoops.

“I’m surprised that we’re this locked in, chemistry-wise,” VanVleet said. “The defensive chemistry and synergy we have right now. It was kind of shocking early on in conference that we had it. You usually have it later on in the year.”

Here’s one stat that shows how drastic the turnaround has been. No team has been as consistent or dominant since the calendar hit 2016 as Marshall’s. It’s not even that close.

It’s been a swift return for a team after a dramatic drop off the radar. There’s also little reason to believe this run is going to stop. Wichita State’s three toughest conference opponents — Northern Iowa, Evansville, Southern Illinois — have already played their home games against the Shockers. If the Shockers are going to lose again, it’s going to be a considerable upset. The probability numbers on WSU beating each of its opponents on a game-by-game basis the rest of the way are approaching 2013-14 percentages.

So yeah, in some ways this has become a redux on that 34-0 run in ’13-14. Surprisingly, VanVleet said the team was more pressed in November and December than it was two seasons ago.

“I think early this year was way more pressure early on, having had that bad start,” VanVleet said. “If you don’t take care of business, now it’s getting tricky. It’s a tough conference to play in whether people think it is or not. … Our depth is just as good if not better than [2013-14]. I think what we’re seeing is, playing around with lineup and getting McDuffie at the 4 resembles what Cleanthony Early could do for us. That was huge for us, that undefeated run has helped with us.”

Wednesday night’s win over SIU also marked the latest touchstone to Marshall’s career — and the Wichita State program. The win was the 1,500th in program history, and it was No. 221 for Marshall at Wichita State. He is now the winningest coach in school history, surpassing Hall-of-Famer Ralph Miller.

Marshall, who is now the all-time wins leader at Winthrop and Wichita State, joins the likes of Jim Calhoun, Lou Henson and Johnny Orr as coaches who’ve achieved the rare feat of being No. 1 in victories at two programs. The milestones keep coming, too. This year’s Shockers team is the sixth MVC squad in the past 56 seasons to start 10-0 in the league. With two more home wins, Wichita State’s 21-game win streak against Valley opponents will set a new regular-season league record.

Marshall admitted he couldn’t have predicted an 11-0 start in the Valley, but now he’s so thrilled with how balanced the team is. Wichita State has hit this sweet spot where VanVleet and Baker don’t need to be outstanding every game, or even every other game, in order to ensure victory. Heck, they can play average games and still get enough from McDuffie, Grady, Zach Brown and Frankamp and beat most Valley teams by double digits. Their danger is in their depth, and the numbers prove it.

Still, if one big run awaits, VanVleet and Baker will be required to play like All-Americans.

“When we play the best of the best in the Sweet 16, if we get that far, they’re going to have to score points,” Marshall said. “We don’t rely on them scoring for our success. We rely on them playing well. Like Fred having the floor game he had last night. He was tremendous on defense.”

VanVleet had a calm confidence to his tone on Wednesday night. His college career has only so many games left. Plenty of unknowns remain, but it would take an abnormal reverse of course for Wichita State to not make the NCAA Tournament this season.

“Having been through it,” VanVleet said “I’ve done more just appreciating the guys this year more than any other year. Appreciating the friendships and the bonds.”

We’ve only got so many games left to appreciate those two at this program. The Shockers have become a mainstream underdog and continued to succeed at a five-year pace unmatched by most programs outside multi-bid leagues in college basketball history. In that respect, it wouldn’t feel right to see this team miss out on one more run in the NCAA Tournament. The Shockers are still the familiar favorite who now thrives no matter the role.

Ron Baker (shooting) and Wichita State are on the come and ready for another rodeo. (Getty Images)

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