After rolling through the regular season unblemished No. 2 Wichita State began its next quest: to win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament for the first time since 1987, back before the event was dubbed “Arch Madness.” The first challenge came in the form of the Evansville Purple Aces, who went 6-12 in conference play but possess a star in the making in sophomore guard D.J. Balentine.
Balentine would perform well, scoring 31 points on 10-for-21 shooting, but the Shockers proved to be entirely too much for the Purple Aces. Ron Baker and Cleanthony Early scored 17 points apiece and two other Wichita State players scored in double figures as the Shockers moved to 32-0 with an 80-58 victory. Next up for Wichita State is the winner of Missouri State/Illinois State in Saturday’s semifinals.
The problem for Evansville was a simple one: they didn’t have enough horses to compete with one of the nation’s best teams. Egidiju Mockevicius added 11 points and 11 rebounds, but Aces other than Balentine combined to shoot 11-for-36 (30.6%) from the field. The Shockers are one of the nation’s best defensive teams and against Evansville Gregg Marshall’s team did little to dispel that notion, blocking 11 shots and converting 12 Evansville turnovers into 17 points.
And offensively Wichita State was efficient, shooting 50.9% from the field and 10-for-21 from deep and committing just nine turnovers. The only issue was their foul shooting, as the Shockers shot 14-for-25 from the charity stripe. This is a group with multiple options, from Baker and Early to MVC Player of the Year Fred VanVleet and MVC Defensive Player of the Year Tekele Cotton, and this combined with their rarely taking bad shots makes them a difficult team to defend.
The biggest question mark may be their interior scoring, but the Shockers have done a very good job of accounting for the graduation of Carl Hall all season long. Wichita State’s attacked this by committee and against Evansville that was once again the case, with Chadrack Lufile contributing 11 points and seven rebounds off the bench and Kadeem Coleby adding six points, four rebounds and six blocked shots.
Neither player has to produce offensively at the level that Hall, who averaged 12.6 points per game as a senior, did a season ago but they’ve found ways in which to contribute. And if Coleby and Lufile can continue to do so, Wichita State’s destined to be a very tough out as the month progresses.