More mature Shockers lead the Valley
A week ago, there was reason for a bit of guarded optimism when it came to Wichita State. Even skepticism wouldn't have been out of line.
Because while the Shockers opened this season by winning nine in a row and 12 of 14 games, it was difficult to really know what to think about them as they entered consecutive games against Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa.
Could an experienced Wichita State team truly establish itself as one of the top teams in the Missouri Valley? Or would this season be a repeat of last season, one where the Shockers never really lived up to the hype?
A year ago, Wichita State was the hip pick in the Valley. The Shockers were expected to battle Creighton and Southern Illinois for the league title. There was serious talk about Wichita State making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1988.
So what happened? While the Shockers were good at times, they also lost extremely winnable home games against Drake and Indiana State and they blew a 14-point lead to Northern Iowa in the semifinals of the MVC tournament. NCAA dreams turned into a NIT reality. It was improvement over Wichita State's recent past, but it also wasn't what the Shockers had hoped for.
That's why the last week was so important for Mark Turgeon's team. A group looking for a bit of validation certainly got some. First, the Shockers defeated Southern Illinois -- the three-time defending regular-season champs and one of the league's benchmarks. Then, two days later, came a victory at Northern Iowa, a place where Wichita State had lost six consecutive games.
"They were big wins," Shockers guard Randy Burns said. "What it did was move us from the 'I think we can' or the 'I believe we can' category to saying 'I know we can.' "
As a result, the can-do Shockers find themselves atop the Missouri Valley standings entering Wednesday night's game against Drake. A victory over the Bulldogs means that Wichita State -- a team picked second in the preseason MVC poll -- will have the league lead at the midway point of the conference season.
"I still think our best days are ahead of us," Turgeon said. "But with the last two wins, we're a much more confident basketball team than before."
It certainly would have been understandable if the Wichita State players spent the past three months wondering if or when the bottom would fall out. That's because there were certainly aftereffects from the come-from-ahead loss to Northern Iowa in the Valley tournament. Especially after the Panthers defeated Southwest Missouri State in the championship game and advanced to the NCAAs.
"We get to the semis and we were up 14," Wichita State forward Rob Kampman said. "If you're up 14, you expect to win. Then they came back and won."
Burns said there were nights over the summer in which he had dreams -- some might call them nightmares -- about the game.
"It's a missed opportunity forever," Burns said.
Still both players watched the Panthers beat SMS, celebrate on the Savvis Center floor and advance.
"It was really hard for me to watch," Burns said. "It made me mad at the world."
In the months that have passed, the Shockers realized they needed to grow up. Because while they were experienced players, they weren't necessarily mature players. When things got difficult and games got tight, the Shockers didn't play together. Too often they did things as individuals, they didn't trust their teammates and they pointed fingers afterwards. When an opponent got in Wichita State's head, it was almost over.
"We weren't a very mature team last year," Turgeon said.
This season, the Shockers have played much more as a team and have been better in close situations. While they had second-half leads in both of their losses -- at home against Manhattan and at Indiana State -- Wichita State has done some good things. The Shockers are 7-1 on the road this season and 9-2 in games decided by 10 or fewer points.
The road victories -- a list that includes wins at Providence and at Austin Peay -- are part of the reason why the Shockers are currently No. 19 in the Ratings Percentage Index and potentially in position to earn an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament, should they falter in the Valley tourney.
"Some of those games we probably would've lost last year," said Burns, one of four Wichita State players averaging more than 10 points per game.
But as good as the Shockers have been this season, Turgeon thinks his team can be better. But for one or two occasions this season, Wichita State hasn't put together good offense and defense on the same night. Usually one of the two has been in place, but not both. Even so, Wichita State -- a program that has improved from 15 to 18 to 21 victories under Turgeon -- has been winning games.
"This year, we're not great at anything," Turgeon said. "But we're figuring out a way to win."
And with every win, the reason for skepticism diminishes.
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.