Cleanthony Early leads Wichita State in scoring this season (Getty Images)
The last time a college basketball team completed the regular season unbeaten, Saddam Hussein had just been removed from power, gas cost less than $2.00 a gallon and Usher's "Yeah!" was the most popular song on the radio.Wichita State is not ruling out the possibility of ending that 10-year drought this season.
With three starters and a handful of key reserves back from last season's Final Four team, Wichita State enters the start of Valley play on Thursday night with a top 10 ranking and an unsullied 13-0 record for the first time in school history. The combination of the strength of the Shockers and the lack of another elite team in the Valley has fueled talk that Wichita State may have a glimmer of hope of entering the postseason without a loss in a couple months.
"It's unlikely but not impossible," Wichita State coach Greg Marshall said. "Winning in the Valley is brutally difficult, but we have to embrace the challenge every night. I've always said you eat an elephant one bite at a time. Right now, we're not thinking about eating the entire elephant. We're thinking about our next meal."
Although Wichita State's remaining schedule is far more manageable than any of college basketball's six other remaining unbeaten teams, history suggests avoiding a loss in Valley play is extremely difficult.
The only two Valley teams to go unbeaten in league play in the modern era are Larry Bird's 1978-79 Indiana State team and a 1985-86 Bradley team that starred Hersey Hawkins and Jim Les. Since then, only one Valley team has even completed league play with just one loss, a formidable 2003-04 Southern Illinois team that went 17-1 and won the conference by five games.
What makes Wichita State's task a bit more manageable than past Valley powers is that Creighton's departure has created a power vacuum at the top of the league besides the Shockers. Indiana State has five starters back from last season and a quality win at Notre Dame and Missouri State and Drake have exceeded expectations in non-league play, but none of the three are in the RPI top 60 as of Wednesday.
Statistical guru Ken Pomeroy estimates Wichita State has a 6.9 percent chance of winning all 18 Valley games on its schedule and entering Arch Madness with a spotless 31-0 record. That outcome would thrill Wichita State's second-leading scorer Ron Baker, but the sophomore guard admits it's unlikely because there are so many hostile road venues in the Valley and because opposing staffs are so familiar with the sets the Shockers like to run.
"Going undefeated in college basketball is not an easy task, but I'm not going to sit here and say it's impossible," Baker said. "The Valley is always tough, game in and game out. Scouting is unbelievable. Every team is sitting on each play you've got and knows what you're going to do. We have to execute so much better to beat these teams in the Valley. If we can focus just one game at a time, keep playing good defense and up our execution on offense, we'll give ourselves a chance."
Ron Baker (Getty Images)
The two biggest questions facing the Shockers entering the season centered around how they'd compensate for the graduation of steady point guard Malcolm Armstead and standout big man Carl Hall. Concern regarding Wichita State's lack of depth at point guard also emerged after the school announced in September it would not medically clear freshman D.J. Bowles to play as a result of the discovery of a heart condition.
Sophomore Fred VanVleet has assuaged any fears about the point guard position, building on his strong finish last season by entering the starting lineup and performing even better than Armstead did in his lone season with the Shockers. Not only does VanVleet's assist-to-turnover ratio exceed 3-to-1, the former Rivals 150 recruit is also averaging 11.3 points per game and sinking 46.4 percent of his 3-pointers.
Hall's low-post scoring, rebounding and defensive presence have proven more difficult for one guy to replace, so Wichita State has called on several big men to do it collectively. Six-foot-7 junior college transfer Darius Carter isn't the rim protector Hall was, but he is a polished back-to-the-basket scorer who has cracked double figures in four of his past five games. Reserves Kadeem Coleby and Chadrack Lufile bring greater size than Carter, though their roles have diminished a bit with his emergence recently.
"It's a three-headed monster," Marshall said. "Each one has had their moments, but Darius is playing really well right now. He had 14 rebounds against Tennessee. He had a couple big hoops in the win at Alabama. But we'll need all of them. They're all different, but they have to play to their strengths."
Whatever production Wichita State lost when Hall graduated the Shockers so far have made up from the development of some of their returners.
Senior forward Cleanthony Early has grown more comfortable in the role of go-to scorer, increasing his average to 16 points per game without allowing his field goal percentage to diminish. Junior guard Tekele Cotton has gone from defensive stopper to blossoming scoring threat, dropping 19 points on Tennessee and showing a consistent ability to either get to the rim or the foul line. And his confidence buoyed by the contributions he made during the NCAA tournament last March, Baker has improved his ability to beat defenders off the dribble and evolved from little-known walk-on, to March hero, to legitimate NBA prospect.
With a stingy defense and an array of perimeter scoring threats, Wichita State has beaten Tennessee at home, won at Saint Louis, Alabama and Tulsa and taken down DePaul and BYU on a neutral floor. That's not enough for Baker to declare this year's Shockers better than the group that upset Gonzaga and Ohio State last March, but the sophomore guard admits this team is farther along now than last year's was at this point in the season.
"I can agree with that," Baker said. "Both teams were talented and hard-working, but this season, we're a little more confident in ourselves. We know what it takes to win big ball games."
Two seasons ago, Wichita State went 16-2 in the Valley and won the regular season title. Last season, the Shockers finished a modest 12-6 before catching fire during the NCAA tournament.
Could Wichita State make a run at a perfect record this season? Maybe, but it's certainly not the Shockers' focus.
"We talk about keeping our unbeaten streak for the next game," Marshall said. "We talked about beating the school record. We talked about being undefeated at Christmas. We talked about finishing non-league play unbeaten."
One bite of the elephant at a time. But eventually those bites may start to add up.
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