A week ago, there was reason for a bit of guarded optimism when
it came to Wichita State. Even skepticism wouldn't have been out of
Because while the Shockers opened this season by winning nine in
a row and 12 of 14 games, it was difficult to really know what to think
about them as they entered consecutive games against Southern
Illinois and Northern Iowa.
Could an experienced Wichita State team truly establish itself as one of the top teams in the Missouri Valley? Or would this season be a repeat of last season, one where the Shockers never really lived up to the hype?
A year ago, Wichita State was the hip pick in the Valley. The
Shockers were expected to battle Creighton and Southern Illinois for the
league title. There was serious talk about Wichita State making its
first NCAA tournament appearance since 1988.
So what happened? While the
Shockers were good at times, they also lost extremely winnable home
games against Drake and Indiana State and they blew a 14-point lead to
Northern Iowa in the semifinals of the MVC tournament. NCAA dreams
turned into a NIT reality. It was improvement over Wichita State's
recent past, but it also wasn't what the Shockers had hoped for.
That's why the last week was so important for Mark Turgeon's
team. A group looking for a bit of validation certainly got some. First,
the Shockers defeated Southern Illinois -- the three-time defending
regular-season champs and one of the league's benchmarks. Then, two days later, came a victory at Northern Iowa, a place where Wichita State had lost six consecutive games.
"They were big wins," Shockers guard Randy Burns said. "What it
did was move us from the 'I think we can' or the 'I believe we can'
category to saying 'I know we can.' "
As a result, the can-do Shockers find themselves atop the
Missouri Valley standings entering Wednesday night's game against Drake.
A victory over the Bulldogs means that Wichita State -- a team picked
second in the preseason MVC poll -- will have the league lead at the
midway point of the conference season.
"I still think our best days are ahead of us," Turgeon said.
"But with the last two wins, we're a much more confident basketball team
It certainly would have been understandable if the Wichita State
players spent the past three months wondering if or when the bottom
would fall out. That's because there were certainly aftereffects from
the come-from-ahead loss to Northern Iowa in the Valley tournament.
Especially after the Panthers defeated Southwest Missouri State in the
championship game and advanced to the NCAAs.
"We get to the semis and we were up 14," Wichita State forward
Rob Kampman said. "If you're up 14, you expect to win. Then they came
back and won."
Burns said there were nights over the summer in which he had
dreams -- some might call them nightmares -- about the game.
"It's a missed opportunity forever," Burns said.
Still both players watched the Panthers beat SMS, celebrate on
the Savvis Center floor and advance.
"It was really hard for me to watch," Burns said. "It made me
mad at the world."
In the months that have passed, the Shockers realized
they needed to grow up. Because while they were experienced players,
they weren't necessarily mature players. When things got difficult and
games got tight, the Shockers didn't play together. Too often they did
things as individuals, they didn't trust their teammates and they pointed
fingers afterwards. When an opponent got in Wichita State's head, it was
"We weren't a very mature team last year," Turgeon said.
This season, the Shockers have played much more as a team and
have been better in close situations. While they had second-half leads
in both of their losses -- at home against Manhattan and at Indiana State
-- Wichita State has done some good things. The Shockers are 7-1 on the
road this season and 9-2 in games decided by 10 or fewer points.
The road victories -- a list that includes wins at Providence and
at Austin Peay -- are part of the reason why the Shockers are currently
No. 19 in the Ratings Percentage Index and potentially in position to
earn an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament, should they falter in the Valley tourney.
"Some of those games we probably would've lost last year," said
Burns, one of four Wichita State players averaging more than 10 points
But as good as the Shockers have been this season, Turgeon
thinks his team can be better. But for one or two occasions this season,
Wichita State hasn't put together good offense and defense on the same
night. Usually one of the two has been in place, but not both. Even so,
Wichita State -- a program that has improved from 15 to 18 to 21
victories under Turgeon -- has been winning games.
"This year, we're not great at anything," Turgeon said. "But
we're figuring out a way to win."
And with every win, the reason for skepticism diminishes.
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.