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One win from 34-0, Shockers finally seem comfortable in St. Louis

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports
Wichita State's Tekele Cotton throws it down against Missouri State on Saturday. (AP)
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Wichita State's Tekele Cotton throws it down against Missouri State on Saturday. (AP)

ST. LOUIS – Gregg Marshall and the city of St. Louis are back on decent terms.

That is a good thing for 33-0 Wichita State.

This has not exactly been Pleasantville for the coach of the Shockers. In his previous six seasons, the site of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament had been nothing but Arch Sadness for Marshall and all Wichita State fans. The Shockers have not won the Valley tourney under Marshall – or under any coach since 1987. That’s an astonishing streak for a school that has arguably the best tradition of any current conference member.

Coming into this year’s tourney, Wichita State was just 7-6 in Arch Madness under Marshall. Their misery in Missouri included a controversial one-point loss to Creighton in 2009, amid allegations of a clock snafu that went in favor of the Bluejays; an upset loss to Indiana State in the semifinals in 2011, relegating the Shockers to the NIT; an upset one-point loss to major underdog Illinois State in 2012; and a pair of title-game losses, once to Northern Iowa (’10) and once to Creighton (’13).

Year after year, Marshall and the Shockers faithful left St. Louis grumbling about everything from the officiating to the conference office to their own performance.

But not this year. At 33-0 and stampeding toward their net-cutting destiny Sunday, it’s all of a sudden a St. Louie love-in.

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Cleanthony Early's 20 points and five rebounds had the Shockers in control all game Saturday.

“I’ve had some good experiences in St. Louis lately,” Marshall said. “We went to play the [Saint Louis] Billikens and won against a very tough team on their home court, which at that point they were rarely losing at all there. And then I came to Game Four in the World Series and had a beautiful afternoon, had a great steak, went over and watched the game, and then Johnny Gomes hit a three-run homer for my team [the Boston Red Sox]. It was nice. We enjoyed St. Louis immensely.”

Neutral hometowners who will be in Scottrade Center on Sunday for the Valley final between Wichita State and Indiana State probably just became Sycamores fans after hearing that. They take their Cardinals baseball seriously around here, and anyone who enjoyed the Redbirds’ World Series demise is persona non grata.

But those fans will be drowned out by the yellow horde of Wichita State backers who have taken over the town in anticipation of finally seeing their team cut down the nets in this building. This is a virtual homecourt for the Shockers – as if they needed the help.

They have been so dominant through their first two games here that it’s difficult to envision Indiana State knocking them off. (And every bubble team in America will be rooting hard for Wichita to prevent the Sycamores from stealing a bid.) Wichita State beat Evansville by 22 Friday and Missouri State by 25 Saturday, and the latter was on pace to be the biggest semifinal beatdown in Valley tournament history until Marshall called off the dogs with several minutes left to play.

The Shockers beat Indiana State twice this year by an average margin of 13.5 points. If they beat the Sycamores by 21 or more, Wichita State will set the Valley tourney record for biggest combined margin of victory in three games at 68. (Previous record of 67 was set by Bradley in 1988.) And they’ve been playing this tournament since 1977.

So there are things to play for here. The rest of the world is caught up in Wichita State’s undefeated season; in debating its worthiness for a No. 1 seed (please, of course it is worthy); and its NCAA tournament readiness. But first things first, the Shockers want to capture what has been denied to them right here, and right now.

“We’re all competitive on this team,” said guard Tekele Cotton. “That’s a goal, to check that box.”

There are bigger goals and bigger boxes to check down the road, no matter what happens Sunday. (And as I’ve said before, a loss here could actually be a blessing in disguise.) And if Wichita State shoots in the next tournament the way it has in this tournament, you’d better believe it could win the whole thing.

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Gregg Marshall applauds Wichita State's defensive effort Saturday. (AP)

The Shockers have been 19 of 40 from the 3-point line in two games here. They started the blowout of Missouri State by making 8 of their first 11 (8 of 10 on the stat sheet, but the stat crew missed a heave at the shot-clock buzzer by Ron Baker).

For a team that guards as well as anyone in the nation and rebounds ferociously, the perceived weakness has been perimeter shooting. But it isn’t a weakness here and now.

“When they’re rolling like that, they’re going to be tough to deal with,” Missouri State coach Paul Lusk said.

“If we can shoot it like this for as long as we continue playing,” said Marshall, “we’ll be a very, very tough out.”

In the next tournament, where they play for keeps, Wichita State figures to be right back in this same arena. This is one of the sites for the opening weekend of the NCAAs, and the Shockers are a virtual lock to be placed here due to geographic proximity.

So this seems like an ideal time for Gregg Marshall and St. Louis to kiss and make up. They’re going to be seeing a lot more of each other later this month.

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