Fred VanVleet scored 14 of his 17 points in the first half and Ron Baker added 13 points as Wichita State picked up a critical win at home over UNLV on Wednesday night, 56-50. VanVleet also added four assists and four rebounds as he truly looked healthy for the first time this season.
The Shockers struggled through the first two weeks of the season, mainly due to a hamstring injury that VanVleet, their all-american point guard, was dealing with. They lost at Tulsa and then dropped three straight at the Advocare Invitational to Alabama, Iowa and USC.
They weren’t yet in a place where an at-large bid was out of reach, but without the luxury of having a power conference league schedule, at the very least the Shockers had — and still have — a huge hole to dig out of.
Getting this win is a nice start.
I’m still not quite sure just how good this UNLV team is. They didn’t play all that well on Wednesday night, but there haven’t a lot of teams that do play well in Wichita when VanVleet and Baker have been around. The Rebels dug themselves a 14-point first half hole, but when it seemed like they were on the verge of getting run out of Kansas, UNLV buckled down defensively and scrapped their way back into the game.
Point guard issues are still prevalent on this roster — with Patrick McCaw struggling, they didn’t have a go-to guy or someone that could get them into an offense or a set play in the half court — but in past seasons, this is the kind of game that would have been a 25-point blow out.
Remember, Wichita State now has VanVleet healthy and Connor Frankamp eligible. They’re a top 15 team, and UNLV was down one possession with two minutes left in the game.
I say all that to say this: I think, by the end of the season, this win is going to look better than it does right now. If the Shockers can beat Utah as well — another win that will look better in March — then I think that as long as the committee factors in VanVleet’s injury, they should have a non-conference résumé that’s strong enough to keep them in at-large contention.