Wichita State won the 2012 Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball title. If you watched the net-cutting on Feb. 25, 2012, you have more experience with an MVC title than most of the Shockers.
Only two current Shockers played that season and Tekele Cotton and Evan Wessel came off the bench on a senior-dominated team. Ron Baker watched as a redshirt.
“I remember the feeling,” Baker said. “It was pretty special. A lot of fans take it seriously around here.”
The third-ranked Shockers (28-0, 15-0 MVC) can win the MVC title outright on Saturday night with a win over Drake (14-13, 5-10). Second-place Indiana State, trailing WSU by three games with three to play, can hand the Shockers the title if it loses at Missouri State on Saturday afternoon.
Wichita State is rolling to the MVC title, overwhelming most teams with their size and talent, as expected since they were 13-0 in nonconference games. The Valley isn’t challenging the Shockers as much as in past seasons and the effects can’t be measured until March.
While the 13.9-point average margin of victory may indicate a cakewalk for the Shockers, the challenge lies in not believing it’s a cakewalk. That is a mental toughness that can serve a team well in the NCAA Tournament.
Even before No. 1 Syracuse lost to lowly Boston College at home Wednesday, coach Gregg Marshall warned his team to avoid the big letdown.
“We know the target is on our back and we could come out one night and have a Syracuse night,” senior Nick Wiggins said. “We’re staying focused, doing what we’ve been doing and not forgetting what got us to this point. Any night can be a night when a team can be on fire and not miss a shot and we’ve got to be prepared for that.”
Taking on the MVC in its current state, without Creighton and overly dependent on freshmen and sophomores, requires discipline and preparation. That is where these Shockers excel. The leaders — Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker, Tekele Cotton and Evan Wessel — are about as solid and no-nonsense as is possible for college athletes. Their example in the gym, the weight room and film sessions keeps the Shockers from getting too high or too low.
“This is such a stoic group, and very mature,” Marshall said. “All business.”
So far, the attention and the hype hasn’t sucked the concentration and focus from this group. If the Shockers are taking MVC opponents lightly, it rarely shows on the court. Their attention to the scouting report for Sunday’s game at Evansville resulted in 14 steals as the Shockers repeatedly disrupted one of the MVC’s most disciplined offenses in an 84-68 win. Against Loyola, the Shockers slumped defensively in the second half while still winning easily with another efficient scoring night.
“Our past two games, we’ve taken the scouting report pretty seriously,” Baker said. “Evansville was probably the most focused we’ve been as far as the scouting report. If we saw a set coming, we would deny a certain part of the court. We knew what their calls were early in the game.”
The Shockers have to take their challenges from the MVC where they can. They will face bigger and deeper teams in the NCAA Tournament. They won’t face teams, especially on one day’s turnaround, better prepared for WSU’s system. The Shockers have played enough name-brand teams the past two seasons to know the difference. They also know teams that win titles treat all opponents seriously.
“We’re going to get every team’s best shot,” Wiggins said. “Someone wants to knock us off.”
While the Valley title is seen as a minor part of the parade to March, it should mean something to the Shockers.
“There’s 10 teams that want to get one banner hung in their gym,” Baker said.