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Meet the big, bad villain - and potential NCAA tournament champ - from the MVC

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports
Wichita State v Indiana State
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Cleanthony Early and Wichita State look like they're primed for an NCAA tournament run. (Getty)

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. – This flat, flairless town of 61,000 hard by the Illinois line is entombed in February gloom. There are mountains of snow plowed into parking lots and street corners, temperatures below freezing, the sky an impenetrable slate gray. There is no spring in sight.

But in the midst of a merciless Midwestern winter, the Hulman Center at Indiana State University offered a source of heat and light and energy Wednesday night. Students scurried along snow-packed streets and icy walkways toward the gym, piling in hours before tipoff. Seats that have not been full for years in the 10,200-seat area were taken by tipoff.

They were here to meet the Shockers. The undefeated Wichita   State Shockers were in town, in their new role as the antithetical rock stars of the Missouri Valley Conference. The last time a Valley team was this big a deal was 35 years ago – Larry Bird was the star and Indiana State was the unbeaten team.

Now comes blue-collar Wichita State, lacking a Bird-like talent but dominating a proud league that was dealt a blow by the departure of Creighton and Doug McDermott. Where the Shockers go, crowds follow. And boos rain down. And the Shockers smile.

"They don't boo anybody," opined guard Fred   Van Vleet, "that's not any good."

Van Vleet and his teammates know a compliment when they hear one. And a challenge when they see one. Indiana State was the challenge Wednesday night, and a serious one at that.

Fourth-ranked Wichita State did not play great, but was gritty enough to hold off MVC second-place Indiana State 65-58. The highest-ranked visitor ever to the Hulman Center trailed for just 2 minutes and 27 seconds all night, but could not put the home team away. The largest home crowd of the year by more than 2,000 (a total of 9.245) fueled a few determined Sycamore rallies and kept this game tense into the last few possessions.

It took four free throws in the final minute from a reformed bricklayer, post man Chadrack Lufile, to put away Indiana State. That and plenty of missed free throws by the Sycamores, plus some vintage Play Angry defense from the Shockers in the second half (ISU was 6 of 30 after intermission).

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Indiana State's Jake Odum goes up for a shot against Wichita State. (USA Today)

“Quite a battle, quite a game,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “That’s why winning on the road is so difficult.”

This is the late-season reality for one of two remaining unbeatens in college basketball: the opposing gyms get louder, the stakes get higher, the scrutiny becomes unlike anything Wichita has ever experienced in the regular season before.

To help keep it light and simultaneously narrow the focus to the task at hand, Marshall made this the Marshawn Lynch game.

It was victory No. 24 for Wichita State, the jersey number of the Seattle Seahawks running back. That’s the way Shockers coach Gregg Marshall has been having fun with his team’s gaudy undefeated streak – pick a famous number that goes with the game Wichita is trying to win.

“Last game was 23 – Michael Jordan,” Marshall said. “This game, Marshawn Lynch. Beast mode.”

Marshall demanded Beast Mode from his best player in the second half, and Cleanthony Early supplied it. He coasted through the first half with four points and no rebounds – “I’m pretty sure I’m going to get chewed out in film,” he said – then finished with 19 and five. He was demanding the ball when he had mismatches, attacking the basket and playing like an NBA prospect. His swooping and-one drive gave the Shockers a 61-56 lead with just over a minute to go, and Lufile (a 40-percent foul shooter last year, up to 69 percent this year) iced it late.

“Every day after practice, I shoot 100 free throws with our managers,” Lufile said.

That’s the dedication to improvement Marshall loves, and all his players embrace. This was not a roster full of guys who arrived in Wichita as instant-impact players; they had to grow into that role and coalesce with their teammates.

And last year it suddenly all came together. The Shockers went 26-8 and then caught fire in the NCAA tournament: taking down No. 1 seed Gonzaga, reaching the Final Four and pushing eventual national champion Louisville to the brink before relenting in the semifinals.

With four starters and the same chip-on-the-shoulder mentality returning, Wichita is even better this year. Undefeated-level better, which has become a growing national sensation.

Which is why Marshall searches for small ways to deal with an unaccustomed spotlight. The streak is there, no use pretending it isn’t. No Division-I team has finished the regular season unbeaten in a decade, since St. Joseph’s in 2004, so the Shockers have opted to embrace the pursuit of perfection.

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Cleanthony Early's 19 points went a long way in beating Indiana State. (Getty)

“I want it, definitely,” Van Vleet said. “It would be a great accomplishment. We’re not running or hiding from it.”

After holding off Indiana State – and dealing a major blow to the Sycamores’ shot at an at-large NCAA tournament berth – Wichita State had the luxury of a charter plane ride home. Most Valley teams don’t have the budget for that, but this is a basketball-first athletic department that has put its money behind Marshall (he’s making $2 million a year) to keep him there.

While the travel is easier than most Valley teams enjoy, Wednesday was a marathon day for the Shockers. They were on their plane to fly here by 7 a.m. CT, went through an extended de-icing, flew into Terre Haute and did a walk-through before retiring to their hotel for a meal and some rest. They left the gym around 11 p.m. ET and headed straight to the airport to go home.

Next stop: Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Saturday – for Northern Iowa and its more compact, 7,293-seat gym. This is game No. 25, so what will be Marshall’s theme for that one?

“I’m sure he’ll figure something out,” Van Vleet said. “He’s pretty clever.”

The weather is lousy in Iowa, too. But rest assured the home crowd will be hot and bothered once again at the sight of the Valley’s blue-collar rock stars.

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