By DAVE SKRETTA
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Wichita State’s Ron Baker has grown accustomed to looking up in the stands during a pregame shoot-around, peering from one section to the next, and seeing very few empty seats.
Not just when the Shockers are at home, either.
Fourth-ranked Wichita State, which beat Drake over the weekend to run its record to 21-0, has become a marquee opponent on everybody’s schedule. When it rolled into Missouri State earlier this month or Illinois State last week, the story was exactly the same.
“This is the third game in a row where people have said that,” Baker replied, when asked about drawing Drake’s best crowd of the year. “We’re starting to get used to it.”
All those fans are getting used to watching Wichita State win, too.
Along with top-ranked Arizona and No. 2 Syracuse, the Shockers are among three unbeaten teams left in men’s Division I basketball. Considering the weakened state of the Missouri Valley Conference and the schedule they still have left, there’s a good chance Wichita State will become the first team to enter the NCAA tournament with an unblemished record since UNLV in 1991.
The Shockers play Loyola of Chicago today.
“These are really fine young people that we’re dealing with,” Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said. “They deserve all the credit and the accolades they’re receiving. They work extremely hard. They represent our university in a first-class way and they just continue to get better.”
That’s a scary thought for the rest of the nation.
Wichita State burst onto the national scene last season, when it knocked off top-ranked Gonzaga and Ohio State en route to its first Final Four since 1965. It took mighty Louisville, the overall No. 1 seed and eventual champion, to finally send the Shockers home.
The Shockers lost a couple of key players from that team, including blood-and-guts leader Carl Hall and fiery point guard Malcolm Armstead, but the rest of their major contributors are back.
Fred VanVleet, who was just a freshman a year ago, has emerged as one of the nation’s premier point guards. Cleanthony Early, a breakout star of the Final Four, recently joined him on the Oscar Robertson watch list, while also making the Wooden Award’s midseason list.
Then there are the rest of the guys — Baker, Tekele Cotton, Darius Carter and a host of others — who have proven that it doesn’t take five stars next to your name, or being anointed the next big thing while still in high school to win games on the college stage.
“We can’t walk out there and just impose our will because we’ve the best coach and the biggest and best players, and five-star guys, one-and-done guys,” Marshall said. “We don’t have that. We’ve got guys that are good because they really work and they’re team-oriented and they care about each other and they’re committed and they’re strong-minded and they’re just tough.”
Quite possibly tough enough to run the table.
The closest the Shockers have come to losing was at Missouri State, when they had to rally from 19 down to force overtime. They wound up winning 72-69.
Otherwise, it’s been mostly 20-point blowouts in Missouri Valley play. You have to go back to a 72-67 win at Alabama on Dec. 17 to find one of their four games decided by 10 points or fewer.
One of those came against Saint Louis, about the closest thing that Wichita State has to a marquee victory. The Billikens weren’t ranked when the Shockers beat them on the road Dec. 1, but they haven’t lost since and have climbed to No. 19.
The Shockers’ soft schedule has provided plenty of fodder for critics. Of their 10 remaining regular-season games, only three are against teams with winning records.
Marshall bristles at anyone the topic of scheduling, though. He has tried for years to play Kansas, and said several other premier programs have balked at playing Wichita State. Besides, it was Creighton’s defection from the Missouri Valley that has dragged down the conference RPI, and deprived the Shockers of two more high-profile games.
“We added a couple of very good teams in Saint Louis and Alabama in our home-and-homes this year, on the road,” Marshall said. “We would take all comers, but it takes two to tango.”
“We play the schedule that we got,” he added, “and so far we’ve played it pretty well.”
In fact, they’ve played it perfectly.