Saturday, February 11, 2012
Wichita State states its case, loudly
By Jason King
OMAHA, Neb. -- Moments after his team humiliated No. 15 Creighton on its home court, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall sat before a throng of reporters and smirked.
“Maybe now,” he said, “we can get some press.”
On some days, the comment might have seemed catty and whiny. But after what his squad did to the Bluejays on Saturday, it was easy to concede that Marshall had a point. A Missouri Valley Conference team has been getting loads of national attention this season.
Unfortunately, it's been the wrong one.
The Shockers -- and not Creighton -- appear to be in a different class than the rest of their competitors in one of the nation’s most underrated leagues. Their 89-68 annihilation of the Bluejays was eye-opening for a variety of reasons, the main one being that it came in front of the largest crowd ever to see a game at the CenturyLink Center.
Not that things ever got rowdy.
Instead, most of the 18,735 in attendance sat in disbelief as Wichita State connected on 58 percent of its shots, eight of its 16 3-point attempts and all 17 of its free throw attempts in its most dominating performance of the season. The loss was the worst for Creighton at home since 1995.
“Even if we had played our best tonight, I’m not sure it would’ve been good enough,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “We didn’t have an answer for anything they did.”
The loss was the third straight for the Bluejays. Wichita State, meanwhile, now has won 20 of its past 22 contests and has a two-game lead over Creighton in the quest for its first Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title since 2006.
Wichita State almost certainly will catapult into the top 25 for first time this season -- and rightfully so. The Shockers are easily one of the better teams in the country from a non-BCS league.
And they might be the best.
Seventh-ranked Murray State lost to Tennessee State this week and should drop dramatically in the polls. Harvard fell to Princeton, Saint Mary’s was whipped at Gonzaga and San Diego State fell to No. 16 UNLV.
Should the Runnin’ Rebels be ranked ahead of the Shockers?
Only if you pretend their 19-point loss to Wichita State on Dec. 4 never occurred.
Joe Ragland's 24 points propelled Wichita State past No. 15 Creighton and star Doug McDermott, left, who managed just 13 points.
“We always say, ‘[People] have it out for Wichita State,’” Shockers guard Joe Ragland said. “We feel like we’re a successful team and we perform well. We just don’t get that recognition. I guess now they’re going to start paying attention to us.”
How could anyone not?
With four senior starters, the Shockers boast one of the most experienced lineups in the country. In Garrett Stutz, they’ve got an agile, versatile 7-footer who entered Saturday’s game averaging 21 points in his previous five contests. Stutz played just 13 minutes because of foul trouble, and it didn’t even matter.
With Stutz on the bench, Wichita State spread the floor and used its athleticism to beat Creighton to the lane. When they didn’t finish with an easy basket in the paint, the Shockers dished the ball outside for an open 3. Ragland finished with a game-high 24 points while forward Ben Smith had 22.
“Our defense was atrocious,” McDermott said. “It was an embarrassment. Wichita took advantage of a lot of our weaknesses.”
And Creighton did nothing to counter on the other end.
The 6-foot-4 Smith held 6-7 Creighton forward Doug McDermott to 13 points on 5-of-14 shooting. McDermott (the coach's son) entered the game averaging 23.3 points, which ranked third in the nation.
“At practice, our teammates do a good job of playing like McDermott,” Smith said. “We tried to go with the game plan and limit his touches and make it hard on him to catch the ball where he wants to catch it. You’ve got to hope for the best.”
Added Marshall: “[Smith] won that battle against a guy that is probably going to be a first-team All-American.”
More than anything, Marshall was proud of his team’s poise in what could have turned into a difficult road environment. Creighton pulled within 33-28 late in the first half, but Wichita State responded by scoring on its next seven possessions to take a 49-36 lead at intermission.
Creighton still thought it had a chance trailing 70-55 with 8:19 remaining. But the Shockers scored on eight consecutive possessions to put the game out of reach.
At one point, Greg McDermott was so frustrated with his son's play that he berated him relentlessly on the sideline during a timeout. There appeared to be contact between the McDermotts, as Greg’s face was centimeters away from Doug’s as he yelled.
“Sometimes, to light a fire under your team, you need to light a fire under one of your best players,” Greg McDermott said. “That was an attempt to do that. It obviously didn’t pay many dividends.
“I don’t do it with many of our guys very often. But we were getting our tail kicked, and they were scoring whenever they wanted. As a coach, you have to try everything. I know Doug can handle it. He’s as big of a critic on himself as anybody else.”
Indeed, Saturday’s loss will be hard to stomach for the Bluejays. Less than two weeks ago, they were riding an 11-game winning streak and were full of confidence. Now their NCAA tournament hopes could be in jeopardy.
Road victories at San Diego State and Wichita State are the only quality wins on Creighton’s résumé. Saturday’s defeat was its third straight -- and more heartache could be coming next weekend when the Bluejays host Long Beach State. The 49ers have played at Kansas, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Louisville this season. They won’t be intimated by a sellout crowd in Omaha.
“Our effort has to be a lot better,” Creighton guard Grant Gibbs said. “We have to stay together as a group. I could name a million things, but it starts with caring more and playing harder.”
Those things aren’t a problem for Wichita State, which can clinch the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title outright with two more wins.
By then, the Shockers hope, people will have taken notice of what appears to be the best mid-major team in the country.
“We’ve gotten some [media attention],” Marshall said, “but we haven’t gotten nearly the amount of it that the Creighton team has. The way they played early in the year, they deserved it. But maybe now these guys will get some.”
The players hope so, too. As they walked off the court Saturday, a few of them extended their right arms and waved to the shell-shocked fans who lingered at CenturyLink Arena. Brash, perhaps, but also fitting.