DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Wichita State soared past yet another overwhelmed Missouri Valley Conference opponent on Saturday night.
Now the Shockers could be in line for another leap in the national polls.
Cleanthony Early scored 19 points, Ron Baker added 14 and fifth-ranked Wichita State stayed perfect with a 78-61 win over Drake.
Wichita State’s latest win — combined with an ugly home loss by No. 4 Villanova to Creighton during the week and No. 3 Michigan State’s home defeat against No. 21 Michigan on Saturday — could put the Shockers (21-0, 8-0 MVC) in position to leapfrog both teams on Monday.
Coach Gregg Marshall appeared to be stumping for his team with what seemed to be a bit of a jab at Michigan State (18-2) after the game.
“Did the mighty Spartans lose again?” Marshall said as he left the podium following his postgame news conference.
The Shockers will have to wait until March for Michigan State or whoever else might stand in their way at another Final Four appearance.
For now, they’ll have to settle for pounding on teams in the Valley.
Drake was the latest to succumb to Wichita State’s acrobatic offense and suffocating defense.
Nick Wiggins had 11 points for the visiting Shockers, who outscored Drake 28-15 to open the second half and turn a relatively close game into a rout.
The Shockers have now won four straight by at least 15 points after an overtime scare at Missouri State two weeks ago.
Aaron Hawley had 16 points to lead Drake (11-9, 2-6), which lost for the sixth time in seven games.
“That team is extremely tough-minded,” Drake coach Ray Giacoletti said. “Each possession offensively and defensively, they control their destiny. They don’t splinter ever. We were not able to make them splinter.”
The Bulldogs had their moments against the Valley’s top team, but Wichita State showed off its superior talent with a handful of game-defining plays.
Baker answered a Drake 3 with a three-point play through traffic with 15:45 left, and that kicked off a pair of spurts that overwhelmed the Bulldogs.
Chadrack Lufile scored inside, and Tekele Cotton’s floater put the Shockers ahead 52-35 with just over 13 minutes left. Early then soared through the paint to flush down an errant shot, and Wiggins’ three-point play capped an 11-0 run that made it 65-44.
The Shockers outrebounded Drake 34-20 and held its leading scorer, Richard Carter, to six points.
It’s been six years since Drake caught the nation’s attention with a stunning surge to the Valley championship, the program’s first in 37 seasons.
The Bulldogs are on their third coach since that NCAA tournament run, with Giacoletti in his first season in Des Moines. Drake started the season 10-3 and whipped Evansville 94-66 in the league opener before slipping during the heart of its Valley schedule.
But the Bulldogs, bolstered by a near-sellout crowd, did their best to push the Shockers early.
They hit nine of their first 16 shots to stay as close as 30-26. But Baker found Cotton for a one-handed alley-oop that sent Wichita State into the break with a 37-29 lead.
“I know Tekele Cotton pretty well. He can jump really high and he likes to dunk it,” Baker said. “It was a really athletic play from him, which is no surprise.”
Cotton then opened the second half with another dunk and the Shockers were on their way to their eighth road win.
The Shockers won’t face a remaining schedule as tough as Michigan State’s or perhaps anyone else in a power league. But Marshall said his Shockers can play with anyone in the country.
Wichita State next hosts Loyola and Evansville ahead of what could be its toughest test of the year, at 16-4 Indiana State on Feb. 5.
“This is a very good basketball team. We don’t have to apologize to anybody about our schedule,” Marshall said. “Was it (former Arizona Cardinals coach) Dennis Green that says, ‘We are what they say we are?’ So, we’re (fifth) in the country and probably moving up — that is unless there’s some elite team wants to jump us this week. I don’t know who that elite team might be.”