When injury-plagued Wichita State dropped four of its first six games to start the season, the Shockers left themselves little margin for error to assemble an at-large-caliber resumé.
The way they performed Saturday, don't count them out.
Wichita State earned its most significant victory of the season on Saturday afternoon when it overwhelmed visiting Utah 67-50. The Shockers never let the 25th-ranked Utes any closer than within four in the second half and led by double figures for the game's final 10 minutes.
By defeating UNLV (7-2) and Utah (7-2) in back-to-back games, Wichita State improved to 5-4 and picked up a pair of badly needed potential quality wins. The Shockers have to take advantage of their remaining opportunities in non-league play because the Missouri Valley Conference doesn't afford them many chances to face RPI top 50 opponents.
Wichita State has one more matchup with a major-conference opponent left in non-league play, a visit to Seton Hall next Saturday.
If the Shockers win that and avoid letdowns at home against Nevada and New Mexico State, they would take an 8-4 record into league play and be in fairly solid shape. If the Shockers drop one or more of those games, they might need to be close to perfect in Valley play to feel good about their chances of locking up an NCAA bid without needing to win Arch Madness.
What Wichita State's performance Saturday showed is that the Shockers still have the potential to be an elite team as they get healthy. They're still without top interior scorer Anton Grady and key reserve Landry Shamet, but the return of All-American point guard Fred VanVleet has made a huge difference.
VanVleet's 10-point, six-assist stat line on Saturday was pedestrian, but the difference between the way the teams took care of the ball illustrated the value of a steady point guard. Wichita State had three turnovers. Utah had 19.
Also encouraging for Wichita State was the emergence of other scoring threats besides VanVleet and Ron Baker. Freshman forward Markis McDuffie and sophomore forward Zach Brown combined for 27 points, a huge development for a Shockers team that sometimes becomes too one-dimensional offensively.
Utah needed a huge game from Jakob Poeltl to match Wichita State's balanced scoring, but the Utes could not get their elite center the ball on the low block. Poeltl finished with 11 points on only five shots because the Shockers did a masterful job of denying entry passes and doubling him whenever he touched the ball in position to score.
The strange thing about Saturday's game is that Wichita State should now become the biggest Utah fans outside of Salt Lake City. The Shockers need their win over the Utes to still be meaningful come March when the selection committee peruses their resumé.
Wichita State may not have started the season the way it would have liked, but the Shockers are showing signs that they may be able dig their way out of the early hole.
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