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How can Wichita State build on the two best years in program history?

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The NCAA tournament is the greatest sporting event in the United States, and if it wasn’t for the unification of ‘Murica in support of the stars and stripes at the World Cup this past June, I think that you would be hard-pressed to find anything that can hold a vice-grip on the ever-dwindling attention span of an entire nation of sports fans for a month like March Madness can.

But while you are filling out your brackets and wildly cheering on that No. 13 seed, hoping a team without a single player that you can name pulls off the upset, the one-and-done nature of the NCAA tournament can be a fickle beast for the people participating in it.

One tough draw, one off night, and an entire season’s body of work can be forgotten in the annals of history. Deep tournament runs and early tourney exits are remembered much more vividly than, say, a regular season conference title. A 25-win season might get a coach a raise. A trip to the Sweet 16 will get him a better job. The tourney is always holding trump cards.

Case in point: Wichita State.

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This past season, the Shockers put together arguably the single-greatest regular season of all-time. They entered the NCAA tournament at 34-0 after steamrolling through league play with very few real challenges while posting the best regular season record in the history of college basketball. But thanks to No. 8-seed Kentucky, a preseason top five team that didn’t figure out how to play together until the night before the SEC tournament, the Shockers were sent packing without reaching the second weekend of the tournament.

All it took was one game — one game where Wichita State played as well as they had all season, losing one of the best-played, most entertaining games you’ll watch — to turn a historical year into a footnote for a team that didn’t make the Sweet 16.

“It was really great to go 35-0, that’s a really great accomplishment,” star guard Ron Baker told NBCSports at the Kevin Durant Skills Academy last month. “But the regular season is kind of a season in itself. When you get to the tournament, it almost feels like a whole nother year. A different season. And for us, that result was pretty disappointing.”

Wichita State had gone almost a full year in between losses, and for Baker, it was difficult for him to process that such a successful season had come to such an abrupt halt. “I reflected on it a lot,” he said, adding that it wasn’t until the sting from the upset wore off that he was truly able to appreciate what he and his team were able to do. “Once the season’s over and you sit down for a couple days, you slow down and think about what you accomplished.

“And it’s pretty phenomenal, especially when you look back in history. We’re the only team to go 35-0. It’s been special.”

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“We had an amazing year,” point guard Fred Van Vleet told NBCSports during a break in the action at the Point Guard Skills Academy in New Jersey in June. “We don’t really define our season off of that game.”

That appreciation wasn’t there while the Shockers were in the middle of their run, however. They weren’t thinking about what an undefeated season would mean historically or how they had a chance to get their names in the record books. They were focused on winning, on doing the things that it took to make sure that they kept that ‘0’ in their loss column.

They were on a mission.

“It was really hard to enjoy it during the season,” Baker said. “There’s practice every day. Weights, lifting. And we’re all competitive. [We did our] best to have fun with it.”

The season before Wichita State made a run at perfection, they were the latest in a long line of cinderellas from the mid-major ranks that traipsed their way through their region and into the Final Four.

And they did it despite the fact that their regular season ended in frustration.

In 2012-2013, the Shockers started the season 19-2, going 8-1 in Missouri Valley play and climbing to No. 15 in the country before losing three straight and five of their last ten regular season games. They wound up in the 8-9 game in the same bracket as Gonzaga, the No. 1 overall seed. But between a hot-shooting second half that sparked an upset of the ‘Zags and a beneficial draw in the later rounds that gave the Shockers matchups with La Salle and Ohio State, Marshall’s band of misfits made it all the way to the Final Four. And if it wasn’t for Louisville guard Tim Henderson’s heroics, they might have found themselves in the national title game.

It creates a weird dynamic, as the Shockers may end up being better remembered for a season in which they struggled through February and early March than for the year where they won their first 35 games. Maybe I’m wrong, and I hope I am, but the casual fan will likely put more stock in winning four games on national television in the NCAA tournament than they will 34 games on ESPN3 in places like Des Moines, Iowa, and Springfield, Missouri.

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It also creates expectations. Baker is a redshirt sophomore. He’s entering his fourth year in the program, during which time the Shockers have made three NCAA tournaments, won two regular season titles and a MVC tournament title, reached a Final Four and earned a No. 1 seed with an undefeated regular season. Prior to his arrival, the Shockers had made one NCAA tournament since 1988.

What happens if the Shockers “only” win the conference and fail to make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament this season?

“If we would’ve done that six years ago at Wichita State, they would have been really pleased,” Baker said. “Now, to make the tournament, it’s expected of us,” but to listen to the two Shockers stars speak, those expectations and that notoriety are what drive them.

“[Success brings] a little bit more popularity, people recognize you. Respect as well,” Van Vleet said. “Those two things are nice. With that comes a lot more work that you’ve got to put in to keep getting better. You don’t want to plateau out.”

What “a lot more work” includes has been early morning workouts for Van Vleet, Baker and senior guard Tekele Cotton, as they spent part of their summer waking up at 6:30 a.m. to workout before coaching at Wichita State’s summer basketball camp. And that would be just the first or two or three workouts on a typical day.

“I’ve never done that before,” Van Vleet said with a laugh. “I’m not a morning guy.”

For Baker, that work included improving his mid-range game, floaters and 8-10 foot finishes, as well as his ability to create separation off the bounce and get to the rim on straight line drives. For Van Vleet, he’s been focused on improving his athleticism and his ability to be a scorer, which is something that both players will need to improve upon without Cleanthony Early around to shoulder the scoring load.

And if they can do that, the Shockers should once again be a team capable of making the Sweet 16 and advancing further, but that won’t leave them satisfied.

“Honestly, we look at [Gonzaga, Butler and VCU] and see what they’ve built, and I’m sure Coach Marshall feels that he wants to build something like that, but the goal is always a national championship,” Van Vleet said. “Make it to that game, play in that game, win that game.

“I would be lying to say that wasn’t our goal at the beginning of the season.”

UT-Arlington dominates, upsets No. 12 St. Mary’s

Texas-Arlington's Kevin Hervey, left, reacts to a 73-68 NCAA college basketball game win as Ohio State's Jae'Sean Tate looks on  in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, Nov. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)
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UT-Arlington made a statement on Thursday night, completely dominating No. 12 Saint Mary’s in a 65-51 upset win in a true road game in Moraga.

Back in October, I ranked both the Gaels and the Mavericks in the top-5 of my Mid-Major Power Rankings. Saint Mary’s was the obvious top choice, one of the nation’s most efficient offenses that returned Emmett Naar and Jock Landale. UT-Arlington, ranked fifth, served as a dangerous opponent. The Mavs had defeated Ohio State and Memphis in 2015, but their season was derailed once Kevin Hervey, a player with serious pro potential, tore his ACL.

With five starters back, including Hervey, who is just now getting back to 100 percent, UT-Arlington looks every bit the part of a March Cinderella.

The Mavericks jumped out to an early lead and forced the Gaels to play out of character. Saint Mary’s had only committed a season-high 14 turnovers before the midway point of the second half. The Gaels, who entered shooting 40 percent from three as a team, was held to 8-of-27 (30 percent) from beyond the arc.

UT-Arlington did an incredible job of closing out on shooters. And it didn’t matter the matchup, at times we saw Hervey, a 6-foot-9 junior, come out and run a guard off the 3-point line. While those statistics mentioned above show up in the box score, the amount of deflections don’t. The Mavericks used its length and athleticism to get their hands everywhere on the defensive end of the floor, making it difficult to find good looks.

In the first half, UT-Arlington controlled the glass. Saint Mary’s found more success in that department after halftime, as Kevin Clark’s offensive putback capped an 11-2 run, which cut the deficit to 52-41. However, the Mavs were able to counter each time the Gaels threatened, never letting the lead get to single digits.

Aside from the struggles the typically-efficient Saint Mary’s offense had, the Gaels struggled to keep UT-Arlington guards Erick Neal and Kaelon Wilson out of the lane, whether it be on a high ball screen or a handoff. Saint Mary’s never seemed to have a help-side defender there to protect the rim. Neal had 13 points and eight assists (five turnovers), while Wilson had 10 points off the bench. Hervey had a game-high 15 points and seven rebounds.

UT-Arlington is winners of eight straight after losing three straight. One of those wins includes a double-digit win over Texas in Austin. The Mavericks are the clear-cut favorite to win the Sun Belt. Come Selection Sunday, I’d say plenty of at-large teams would not like to be paired up with Scott Cross’ team.

Iowa cruises past No. 25 Iowa State

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 20:  Head coach Fran McCaffery of the Iowa Hawkeyes reacts in the first half against the Villanova Wildcats during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Barclays Center on March 20, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Iowa picked up a major win on Thursday night, defeating in-state rival No. 25 Iowa State, 78-64, in a contest the Hawkeyes thoroughly dominated.

Let’s put it this way: the Hawkeyes have played four top-100 teams, according to kenpom. In those games, all losses by the way, their defense has surrendered 91 points to Seton Hall, 74 points to a Virginia team that plays at the slowest tempo in the country, 100 points to Memphis and 92 points to Notre Dame.

On Saturday, on the same floor Iowa demolished the Cyclones, its defense allowed 98 points in a loss to Nebraska Omaha.

This is exactly the sort of win Fran McCaffery and Co. needed to right the ship as we inch closer and closer to conference play.

When the Cyclones went to their bench in the first half, Nick Baer sparked a 10-0 run which helped set the tone for the remainder of the half. Iowa State went without a field goal for more than six minutes during that span.

Iowa kept Iowa State from getting out and running, holding the Cyclones to zero fast break points through the first 20 minutes and limiting them to only 36 percent from the floor as a team. Iowa, on the other hand, shot 47 percent, including 59 percent in the first half, which led to a 15-point halftime lead.

Peter Jok torched Iowa State to the tune of 23 points (4-of-7 from distance).

Monte Morris was held in check with 10 points, while Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas shot a combined 4-of-13 from three (they each hit a three with less than three minutes to play and the outcome all but decided).

Iowa State’s offense is becoming a bigger concern. Just like against Gonzaga, the Cyclones dug a first-half hole they could shoot out their way of. And like last week’s overtime loss to Cincinnati, they struggled from beyond the arc.

Iowa landed a marquee win it needed, while its rival headed home with questions to answer after losing three of four.

 

Alabama wing sidelined due to weight loss

ORLANDO, FL - NOVEMBER 29: Head coach Avery Johnson of the Alabama Crimson Tide during the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at HP Field House on November 29, 2015 in Orlando, Florida.  (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
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Alabama junior wing Nick King will not be with the team for Sunday evening’s matchup against No. 24 Oregon in Eugene.

According to Rainer Sabin of the AL.com, Alabama head coach Avery Johnson said King undergoing a series of tests after losing more than 10 pounds in less than a week and a half.

Johnson told reporters that he is “very concerned” and estimates that as of now King will be sidelined for “a week or two.”

King, who played his first two seasons at Memphis, has appeared in all seven games for the Crimson Tide, averaging 3.3 points and 2.9 rebounds in 12.7 minutes per game.

Damonte Dodd out with MCL sprain

COLLEGE PARK, MD - FEBRUARY 13: Melo Trimble #2 and Damonte Dodd #35 of the Maryland Terrapins react to a call as Alex Illikainen #25 of the Wisconsin Badgers looks on in the second half at Xfinity Center on February 13, 2016 in College Park, Maryland. Wisconsin won 70-57.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Maryland could be without the services of starting center Damonte Dodd for the remainder of the non-conference slate, the team announced on Wednesday.

Dodd suffered a MCL sprain in his left knee during practice earlier this week. The injury caused him to miss Wednesday’s 76-56 win over Howard. He will not be available for matchups with St. Peter’s and Jacksonville State. The Terrapins then close out the non-conference slate at Charlotte on Dec. 20 before opening up Big Ten play a week later.

Dodd has started in six of seven games he’s appeared in this season. He’s averaging 5.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. Michael Cekovsky started in place of Dodd on Wednesday night. Ivan Bender, who returned to the lineup against Howard after missing the previous contest, should also see an increase in minutes with Dodd sidelined.

Federico Mussini goes coast-to-coast, beats buzzer with and-1

CINCINNATI, OH - FEBRUARY 03:  Chris Mullin the head coach of the St. John's Red Storm gives instructions to Federico Mussini #4 during the game against the  Xavier Musketeersat Cintas Center on February 3, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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St. John’s capped the first half with a 6-0 run.

Sophomore guard Federico Mussini went coast-to-coast to beat the buzzer, and draw the foul, as the Johnnies went into the break up 42-33 on city rival Fordham.

The 6-foot-4 guard had gone cold during a five-game stretch, but since Thanksgiving he’s scored in double figures in four consecutive games, including on Thursday night.