Southern Illinois vs. Wichita State Game Recap: Shockers Survive Foul Trouble, Sloppy Play to Get to 26-0

Peter Aiken

Wichita State moved to 26-0 with another less than perfect win. They are on the verge of giving Those People something to talk about. But maybe that makes this team more perfect in some way.

The numbers will show 26-0 in the newspaper in the morning, for those that still believe in dead-tree media. Here's betting that Gregg Marshall wishes there was a one instead of a zero at the trailing end of that record.

Don't misunderstand: no one wants to lose, especially not a coach that fights tooth and nail for every thing. Especially not Marshall.

But it is clear that 25-0, 24-0 and 23-0 were and are becoming difficult for this team. Watch any of the last few games, ever since this team accomplished an impressive defense-driven win against Evansville.

People are starting to watch, something that didn't happen last season until that magical run to the Final Four. People are talking about Wichita State, and belittling Wichita State, and generally not understanding Wichita State.

Those People aren't Shocker fans. Shocker fans understand this team.

Those People don't read Mid-Major Madness. Those People don't understand how a team from the Missouri Valley Conference could ever rank among the top five in the country. They are looking for any excuse to take this away from Wichita State.

So when a team like Southern Illinois -- a team with an under .500 record *gasp* -- pushes that highly ranked team for most of 40 minutes, those people sit up and give a little squeal of joy.

"See," Those People say. "This team can barely survive Southern Illinois! They don't belong. We don't need to worry."

This can weight on you. You may not show it outwardly, but you start to feel the pressure.

And Wichita State is handling that pressure about as well as you could ask any set of college kids to handle it. It isn't pretty, and it hasn't been pretty for the last few games. But they are handling it.

Tonight ended with a 78-67 win for the Shockers thanks to their stars and their bench.

On a night when Fred Van Vleet, with a heavily wrapped left hand, failed to accomplish what made him get mentioned as the top point guard in the country, Ron Baker stepped up. When Van Vleet got in foul trouble and sat, or pushed too hard, or just generally played like a freshman instead of a sophomore with Final Four experience, someone else was there to save the day.

When Baker had a run of turnovers and picked up his second foul early in the first half, then Darius Carter was there. And on and on down the line it goes.

Someone on this team is always picking up their teammate. The depth of talent here and the interchangeable parts make that possible.

That isn't to say that this team is going to go far in March when both their primary ball handlers get into foul trouble. You aren't going to survive this when there is a lot more at stake than a perfect regular season record, and the chance of slipping to just a two-game lead in the Valley.

But for tonight, the "Got your back" was enough.

It led to some turnovers. It led to the spurt that finally put Wichita State in front after a back and forth game that tried really hard to move Marshall's hair out of alignment for just a moment.

It finally stopped Anthony Beane for more than a minute so that the Shockers could catch their collective breath. Beane had 25 points, three assists and four steals. He looked like the sophomore gunning for All-American much more than Van Vleet did on this night.

Missouri Valley beware: the next two-plus years are going to be a nightmare when Southern Illinois is on the schedule.

But Beane couldn't stop everything, and that was especially true when coming out of the under-16 timeout in the second half. The game was tied at 43.

Over the next three minutes, 30 seconds, the Shockers would build to a seven-point lead that Southern Illinois would never seriously threaten.

And then later, a six-point lead would balloon to 11, the final margin of victory.

You see, this was a chance for everyone to have a shining moment, whether it was a Ron Baker steal, or a run out on a turnover, or just a rebound or block (shout out to Chadrack Lufile on that one) to prevent the second chances that seemed to multiply like rabbits for the Salukis.

This Wichita State team willed itself to a win.

Cleanthony Early finished with 18 points, and 11 of those came from the foul line. Do you think any kid in the league wants to be shooting free throws? It isn't flashy unless you have some ridiculous streak going that requires everyone to watch to see when it ends.

For the most part, people ignore free throws, especially if the team is making them.

Yet Early accepted that as his place in life, including the three he hit in a row at a moment when Wichita State needed it most.

Those came on a play in the corner with two seconds on the shot clock. Early was fouled by Desmar Jackson and nailed all three charity shots.

That shot in the corner by Early was a spark for this Shocker team. It didn't go in, which was the weird part. "How can this be a transitional moment when the shot doesn't go in?"

It was just a glimpse of what this team could do when pressured.

With all things going against them, they kept it cool. How much longer that cool can continue to rule the day remains to be seen. Not every team is going to finally wear down against the Wichita pressure. Southern Illinois kept coming and coming and the Shockers still withstood it, despite all the negatives. This team knows how to win, which is a giant cliche, but one that holds true here.

Getting through March Madness to the Final Four last season was something that this team has built off of for the last 11 months since it barely missed beating the eventual National Champion, Louisville.

But this is clearly a team that needs some mental relief right now. You don't get into foul trouble early against any team and expect to win. You don't have to survive without a true point guard on the floor. You don't play back on your heels.

Maybe that zero looms too large. Maybe it is going to drive this team to eventually make one too many mistakes or push too hard.

Maybe it is enough to wish that it didn't exist any longer and the Shockers could finally go back to playing hard and fast and loose as they were until people really started to take notice.

Maybe.

But that would give Those People way too much to jabber about.

Better that this team withstands the pressure as they did tonight, or finds a way to relieve that pressure valve off the court so that they can return to normal.

It isn't going to get easier for this team as everyone wants to be that team that finally trips them up. Everyone wants to give Those People something to talk about.

That didn't happen tonight despite Southern Illinois' best effort. After the game Tyler Smithpeters tweeted as much:

Wichita State keeps moving that bar higher, and higher with every win that they manage to find a way to create.

If only it wasn't going to give Marshall some grey hairs in that jet black mane. If only it wasn't going to give Those People the fodder they need so desperately want to hurl against this Shocker team.

Eh, who needs Those People.

We will take this imperfect, yet perfect team for as long as they will have us. We will have find ourselves rooting for them even when we shouldn't be doing so.

But this team is doing something that we haven't seen in almost a decade, and if they can take what St. Joe's did in 2004 and actually see it through to the end...

Those People will really have reason to talk then.

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