Wichita State did what a No. 1 seed is supposed to, methodically rolling the opposition and generously adding highlight-reel plays to keep the crowd interested.
If the remaining six teams in the Missouri Valley Conference hoped to find hope in WSU’s first performance, they found little. The second-ranked Shockers blew past ninth-seeded Evansville 80-58 on Friday in the quarterfinals of the MVC Tournament at Scottrade Center.
As expected, the tournament has WSU’s full attention, both because its players and coaches know no other way and because they want to cut down nets in St. Louis for the first time. The Shockers long ago developed a habit of giving max effort, in part because MVC schools know they operate with little room for error in compiling an NCAA resume. While most schools with 32 wins could consider a conference tournament irrelevant, the Shockers play knowing a loss could cost them a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
That is WSU’s life and the Shockers embrace it.
“We’re on a mission,” WSU senior Cleanthony Early said. “We want to put the hammer down. Every single game.”
WSU (32-0) advances to the semifinals for the fifth straight season and became the fifth team in NCAA history to go 32-0 or better. It plays either fourth-seeded Missouri State or fifth-seeded Illinois State at 1:35 p.m. Saturday.
The Shockers blocked a tournament-record 11 shots, a career-high six by center Kadeem Coleby. They scored 17 points off 12 Evansville turnovers and held the Aces to eight baskets in the second half.
“They get you out of your comfort zone,” Evansville coach Marty Simmons said. “It was hard for us just to make a pass from A to B.”
Guard D.J. Balentine led Evansville (14-19) with 31 points and made 7 of 14 three-pointers. Center Egidijus Mockevicius added 11. The rest of the team combined to score 16 points and miss 19 of 25 shots.
Coleby can take a large share of credit for that. His six blocks rank in a three-way tie for second in tournament history, behind 10 by Creighton’s Benoit Benjamin in 1984. The Aces worked to get free of WSU’s aggressive perimeter defenders and often did. Coleby discouraged their hard work by waiting to block and alter shots with his long arms and timing.
“If we do drive by them, they have that second defender down there to contain the rim,” Balentine said. “It’s kind of like what Egidijus does for us, but they have two or three down there.”
Early also blocked two shots, one a spectacular chase-down block from behind on Blake Simmons in the final seconds of the first half.
“In practice, people think we’re working on how to beat other teams,” Coleby said. “We’re working on how to stop other teams. We’re working on defense. We barely do offensive stuff.”
Evansville’s motion offense depends on timing, screens and sharp passing. The Shockers, as they did repeatedly in the regular-season game at Evansville, jumped the passing lanes and disrupted Evansville’s plan. The Shockers forced coach Marty Simmons to call timeout in the game’s opening seconds to avoid a five-second call. A few minutes later, VanVleet contained a dribbler and his teammates denied passing options to force a five-second call.
“They’re a rhythm team,” VanVleet said. “So we want to extend our pressure and disrupt their rhythm.”
Early and Ron Baker both scored 17 for the Shockers. Tekele Cotton made 3 of 5 threes and scored 11 points. WSU made 10 of 20 three-pointers.
WSU led 41-31 at halftime and started the second half with a 16-5 run, capped by Fred VanVleet’s four-point play with 14:24 remaining. The Aces made eight baskets in the second half and shot 36.8 percent for the game.
Balentine, despite being guarded closely, scored 17 points in the first half. He got little help, however. The Aces led 20-19 when the Shockers upped their defensive pressure and pulled away.
Early’s four-point play — fouled on a three by Jaylon Brown — started the run. Baker’s three made it 28-22 and the crowd roared. The Shockers clapped their hands while setting their defense, sensing the opportunity to break the Aces. Baker stole a pass by Duane Gibson and scored for 30-22 lead and the Aces looked rattled.
“You’ve got to take care of the basketball,” Simmons said. “They did a good job of knocking it loose. They’re so physically strong and they play so, so hard.”
Evansville’s Adam Wing lost the ball, distracted while calling out an offense, and Early picked it up near half court and converted a three-point play for a 35-25 lead. The Aces committed turnovers on consecutive plays and WSU took advantage to go up 40-27.
The MVC Tournament moved to St. Louis in 1991 and it took WSU until 1998 to make the semifinals and until 2003 and 2004 before it did so in consecutive seasons. In those days, the Shockers barely seemed a part of the event.
In 2014, they are the event, the focus of almost every fan and camera in the arena. Two more wins and those eyes will focus on the Shockers cutting down nets in St. Louis for the first time.