ST. LOUIS (AP) — This time last year, Wichita State was keeping light-hearted track of its unbeaten streak with names attached to the numbers — Michael Jordan for 23 in a row, the B-29 bomber for 29-0 and so on, until the run finally stopped at 35-0 with a two-point loss to Kentucky in the NCAA Midwest Regional final in St. Louis.
“We talked about it,” coach Gregg Marshall said. “We didn’t need other people to bring it up. We had fun with it.”
The eighth-ranked Shockers (27-3, 17-1) were nearly perfect this year in the Missouri Valley and are top seeds heading back to the same court where their dream season ended a year ago. They’re peaking, too, clinching their second straight regular-season title with a winner-take-all, 74-60 victory over No. 11 Northern Iowa last Saturday at home. The lone loss was by 16 at Northern Iowa on Jan. 31.
“Pretty big day for all of us,” Marshall said. “It was an exciting week, an exciting close to the season and a tremendous game viewed by a national television audience.”
Wichita State opens Friday against the winner of the play-in game between the eighth and ninth seeds, Missouri State (11-19, 5-13) and Southern Illinois (11-20, 4-14) on Thursday night. Northern Iowa (27-3, 16-2) faces either Drake (9-21, 6-12) and Bradley (8-23, 3-15) on Friday night.
Guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, second and third in balloting for Valley player of the year, have been keys to Wichita State’s continued success despite breaking in eight new players. Forward Tekele Cotton was named the conference top defensive player for the second straight season.
“Those guys don’t walk on the floor expecting to lose, that’s for sure,” Marshall said.
Things to watch for in the Missouri Valley tournament:
GO FOR THREE: Wichita State and Northern Iowa are locks for the NCAA Tournament. The conference could get a third team if both teams falter. Third seed Indiana State (15-15, 11-7) caught stride in conference play and Illinois State and Evansville, the fourth and fifth seeds, are both 19-11. “You’ve got two heavyweight contenders, a logjam in the middle and a logjam at the bottom,” Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson said. “I’ve been on both ends of it.”
TOP TALENTS: Valley player of the year Seth Tuttle of Northern Iowa is the conference’s active career leader in scoring and rebounding. The 6-foot-8 Tuttle leads the Panthers in scoring (15.6 points), rebounding (6.6), assists (3.3) and blocked shots (18) and is shooting 63 percent. Northern Iowa must get past falling fall short in the season finale.
“There was a real, genuine sense of disappointment,” coach Ben Jacobson said. “There were some things we did pretty well and some things we’ve got to do a lot better.”
Baker averages 15.2 points and VanVleet averages 12.5 points and 5.4 assists. Evansville landed two players, D.J. Balentine and Egidijus Mockevicius, on the six-player all-conference team.
FRONT LOADED: The No. 1 seed has won the tourney title just eight times in 24 chances. Wichita State is trying to become the seventh team to take consecutive tournament titles. The last to do it was Southern Illinois, which took three in a row from 1993-95 with a lineup that featured guard Paul Lusk, now the head coach at Missouri State, on all three teams. The lowest seed to win a conference title is No. 5 Indiana State in 2001. For schools in the play-in games, it’s a long grind: Only one team, No. 7 seed Bradley in 1998, has reached the semifinals. “It’s kind of the gladiator approach,” Drake’s Ray Giacoletti said.
HISTORY BOOK: Illinois State and Southern Illinois have both reached the tournament title game 10 times, most among current Valley members. Illinois State last won, however, in 1998 when coach Dan Muller was the most outstanding player. Southern Illinois last won the title in 2007 and is in a play-in game for the fifth time in six years.