Two weeks later and the NCAA Tournament starts much the same way as the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
Top-seeded Wichita State returned to the comforts of Scottrade Center and performed as a No. 1 seed should. It quickly dispatched 16-seed Cal Poly 64-37, giving the Mustangs no reason to hope and giving its starters plenty of time to rest.
Unlike the MVC Tournament, things get much tougher for the Shockers, 35-0, in their Sunday tipoff against Kentucky (around 1:45 p.m. on CBS). The Shockers are the first team to go 35-0, passing 1991 UNLV, which went 34-0 before losing in the NCAA title game to Duke.
The Shockers won the MVC Tournament on March 9. They knocked down any concerns regarding rust from the layoff with a strong defensive effort. They forced Cal Poly to alter its usual plan of working deep into the shot clock and often look for quicker shots. It mattered little how much time the Mustangs took because a defender almost always got in the way.
“As the shot clock goes down, they get stronger,” Cal Poly forward Chris Eversley said. “They were able to force us into bad shots.”
Cal Poly shot 20.7 percent for the game and missed 23 of its 28 shots from three-point range. Malik Love led the Mustangs with nine points. Cal Poly’s starters combined to miss 30 of 36 shots. Eversley, who averages 13.7 points, scored six on 2-of-14 shooting.
“We were very, very focused,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “I know these guys get in a stance and guard, that’s what we ask them to do for 35 seconds.”
WSU’s Cleanthony Early scored 23 points, 19 in the first half. Fred VanVleet handed out eight assists, third-most in an NCAA game by a Shocker. WSU used its height advantage to outcore the Mustangs (14-20) 30-12 in the lane.
Cal Poly defeated UCLA last season and coach Joe Callero decided to use a similar plan on offense against the Shockers. He feared his offense couldn’t produce a good shot if it waited too long, because the Shockers don’t gamble and don’t break down late in the shot clock. He told his players to shoot when open, even if it took the Mustangs out of their usual patient approach.
“We went into the game shooting a little earlier in the clock, doing some things we weren’t traditionally doing, because we were playing to win,” Callero said. “We're going to take shots, early or middle or late, but we have to take shots.”
The Mustangs took plenty. They made very few — four in the first half to fall behind 32-13 and eight in the second half. With that cushion, Marshall started resting his starters with around 11 minutes remaining. Foul trouble helped him make that decision. Early played five minutes in the second half because he picked up a third foul. No starter played more than 28 minutes.
That sets up well for the Shockers on Sunday, when Wichita State will play for a spot in the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis.
“They’re going to need a lot of energy,” Marshall said. “They’ll be asking for subs on Sunday. Their legs should be fresh with all the time we’ve given them off.”
Early took care of most of WSU’s offensive needs. At halftime, he outscored the Mustangs by six points.
“Cle got a lot of open looks,” VanVleet said. “When he’s making shots like that, he can be pretty good.”
A scoreless drought of almost eight minutes in the first half ruined the drama for anybody longing for the historic upset. WSU led 6-5 with 15:17 to play and held Cal Poly scoreless until Kyle Odister’s three with 7:40 remaining made it 21-8. The Mustangs misssed nine shots and two free throws in between scores.
After Odister’s three, Early took over again, scoring seven of WSU’s next nine points to grab a 30-8 lead.
“These games could be potentially be your last,” Early said. “I try to go out there and play as hard as possible.”
WSU led 32-13 at halftime after holding the Mustangs to 4-of-29 shooting, 2 of 13 from three-point range. Cal Poly’s starters combined to make 4 of 22 shots, with Eversley making 2 of 11.
Early made 7 of 11 shots in the first half, 3 of 6 from three-point range. His dunk off a lob from VanVleet — one of VanVleet’s five first-half assists — gave the Shockers a 30-8 lead.
The second half poked along with no change in tempo or momentum. Cal Poly couldn’t score, missing seven of its first eight shots. The Shockers methodically piled up points. Back to back baskets by Chadrack Lufile gave WSU a 44-17 lead.
The Mustangs made a brief run, scoring on three straight possessions, with four WSU starters on the bench to cut the lead to 50-30. Baker, VanVleet and Early returned to the game with 8:18 to play and Early stopped Cal Poly’s run with a jump shot.
Those scores won’t come as easily the rest of the tournament. WSU went 34-0 to earn the reward of an easy opener. Now it is 1-0 in the NCAAs.