When it comes to the national title chances of No. 4 Wichita State, many detractors rush to point out the fact that they play in a Missouri Valley Conference that isn’t as strong as it’s been in years past. While there may be some truth to that, with No. 18 Creighton’s move to the Big East taking away two (and possibly three) games against a team more than capable of beating the Shockers, the fact of the matter is that all Gregg Marshall’s team can do is take care of business against the teams actually on their schedule.
Wichita State has done that all season long, with their most recent triumph being an 84-68 victory at Evansville on Sunday evening. Unlike the first meeting, in which the Purple Aces made their first eight shots from the field and led by as many as 13 points in the first half, Marty Simmons’ team was unable to establish some early separation against Wichita State.
The reasons for that? Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet. Gregg Marshall’s talented backcourt duo combined to score the Shockers’ first 15 points, shooting 6-for-7 from the field, with Baker scoring 15 of his game-high 26 points in the first half. Van Vleet finished the game with 18 points, eight assists and five steals, and as a team Wichita State shot 49.1% from the field. But it was their defense that made the difference, despite the fact that they Purple Aces shot 51.1% from the field.
When Evansville kept possession of the basketball they executed well, but that task is a difficult one against a Wichita State team that rates among the nation’s best on the defensive end. Evansville committed 18 turnovers, which Wichita State converted into 23 points. Nearly 26% of Evansville’s possessions culminated with a turnover, and a percentage that high makes it incredibly difficult to beat any team much less one as good as Wichita State.
With the win the Shockers remain one of the nation’s two remaining undefeated teams, with No. 1 Syracuse being the other. And as this season approaches March, has a clear favorite to win the national title emerged? In the aftermath of their second-half performance on Saturday, No. 3 Florida may be the team closest to earning that distinction. But with Syracuse’s many close calls and the injury issues that both No. 2 Arizona and No. 9 Michigan State have encountered, there seem to be more questions than answers at the top.
So why can’t Wichita State follow up its Final Four run of a season ago with another, or go even further this season? Say what you want about their schedule and their conference, but the Shockers are more than capable of doing just that.
The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 10.3 points per game, while shooting 42 percent from three, as a freshman. He, along with Malcolm Hill and Michael Thorne Jr., is one of three returning players who averaged double figures last season.
This could prove to be a make-or-break year for John Groce, who enters his fifth season at the helm. He guided the Illini to an NCAA Tournament in his first season, but hasn’t been back since.
The key for the Illini is health. Abrams gives them experience and leadership, but it won’t be a surprise if there’s some rust in his game after spending the past two seasons on the sideline. Having a healthy Coleman-Lands will help stabilize the backcourt, while Hill, an all-conference caliber forward, and Thorne anchor the frontcourt.
Like Alkins, Jones was a sought-after scorer. The 6-foot-4 two-guard was rated No. 69 overall in the Class of 2016 by Rivals. He picked Indiana over offers from Cal, Cincinnati, Georgetown and more than a dozen other high-major programs.
Jeter, the 6-foot-10, played in a reserve role as a freshman, averaging 1.9 points and 1.9 rebounds per game last season. He will be part of a loaded frontline that includes heralded freshmen Harry Giles and Marques Bolden, as well as redshirt senior Amile Jefferson, who returns to the lineup following a foot injury.
The greatest player in Auburn program history will honored with a statue outside of the team’s home arena.
The university announced that Charles Barkley, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, will be the fourth athlete to be given a statue, joining Heisman Trophy winners Bo Jackson, Pat Sullivan and Cam Newton.
“It just means a great deal to me,” Barkley said in a statement. “Being a kid from Alabama, going to Auburn. I think everybody knows what Auburn means to me. It’s going to be pretty cool.”
Barkley, currently working as an analyst for TNT, was the SEC Player of the Year in 1984, as well as a second team All-American. He averaged 14.1 points and 9.6 rebounds per game in 84 appearances for the Tigers.