TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- The Wichita State Shockers can do it. Yes, they can. Run the table without blemish, and finish the regular season with fewer losses than the earth has moons. This is getting serious now.
What’s life like when it’s February, and you’re 24-0? In other words, are the Shockers starting to feel the strobe light, with everyone in their universe trying to ruin their perfectness? It didn’t sound like it late Wednesday night, after they brushed past Indiana State 65-58 and headed off for the next stop on their Victory Tour.First, head coach Gregg Marshall. “We don’t talk about an undefeated season. We talk about winning the next game. So far, that’s worked 24 times.”
Then, guard Fred VanVleet, “It’s a cliché, but we really are taking it one game at a time. We’re not running or hiding from it. It’s going to be there. But it’s not a season-breaker. We’re playing for championships.”
Another winter’s night Wednesday, another chance for Wichita State to blink. And still, perfection rolled on.
The latest wanna-be spoiler, Indiana State, came in at 17-5 and had not been beaten at home all season. The local masses were in such a frenzy for an upset, even the new Larry Bird statue standing outside in the snow seemed aroused. Matter of fact, there hadn’t been a team ranked this highly to play on this court -- the Shockers are No. 4 in AP, No. 2 in the USA TODAY coaches’ poll -- since the Bird era 35 years ago.
But there would be no happy ending for the home team. The Wichita State defense held the Sycamores to 20 percent shooting the second half -- the only things in town icier were the side roads -- and that was that. It wasn’t pretty. In a four-minute stretch late in the game, the two teams combined to miss nine of 14 free throws.
But style is not the issue. This is: Wichita State has seven games left on the schedule and they all seem eminently manageable. Only two of the seven opponents have winning records, and the Shockers get both -- Drake and Missouri State -- at home. Then would come the Missouri Valley Conference tournament on neutral ground.
Their chances to stay perfect would seem considerably better than the only other unbeaten team left, Syracuse, given some of its ACC road games that await.
For the record, only 17 teams have put together perfect regular seasons. Twelve of the 17 went to the Final Four, just like Wichita State did last spring.
So we’re talking history, and why shouldn’t the Shockers feel like there are moments that their unbeaten record, and the flame it lights beneath each and every opponent, feels like an anvil?
“It’s a lot easier to deal with this burden than, say, if you’re 18-6 and trying to get in the dance,” Marshall said. “There’s inherit stress and pressure regardless. My wife and I talk about this. We’re 24-0 and there’s still stress. It comes in different forms.
“They’re so mature. They’re young men but they’re wise beyond their years. They just don’t get rattled. Rarely do you see much emotion on their faces. Every once in a while you’ll get a little smile or some positive emotion, but you never see them flustered, you don’t ever see them grimace or down or despondent.”
He looks around at leading scorer Cleanthony Early, who was such a force last season and is so diligent about his defense, he understands anything less than flawless won’t do. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to get chewed on in the films,” he said of a couple of Indiana State plays he left unattended.Or sophomore guard VanVleet, who is making one turnover every 23.8 minutes and directs a balanced, unselfish team.
“That’s how you win,” he said. “You can’t win with egos and agendas. We all buy into that, and that’s why we’re where we are today.”
Or former walk-on Ron Baker, a small town prodigy who is now 37-2 as a starter.
“These kids know how to win, obviously,” Marshall said of a team that has erased double-digit deficits six times this season. “I’m along for the ride.”
As the streak grows, and the pressure with it, he wants to keep the atmosphere a little light. So he assigns famous uniform numbers for each win.
“Last game was Michael Jordan. 23. MJ,” he said. “[Wednesday night] was 24, Marshawn Lynch. Beast mode.”
And next game, No. 25?
“I’m sure he’ll figure something out,” VanVleet said. “He’s very clever.”
VanVleet mentioned the contradictory nature of an unbeaten record.
On one hand, it makes the Shockers public enemy No. 1 at every road game, though boos only amuse him. “They don’t boo anybody that’s not any good,” he said.
“It’s a little bit more nasty, there’s a little bit more hatred. But we don’t think about stuff like that, anyway. Nobody’s big-headed, nobody’s over-confident. We have confidence while understanding what it takes to win.”
On the other hand, a perfect record would leave its glow for a lifetime.
“We’re taking the challenge,” he said. “We are proud of it, and we do pay attention to it.”
So they passed another hurdle Wednesday night. You could tell by Marshall’s steadily loosening tie in the second half that it wasn’t easy.
“I’m trying to enjoy it. I’m trying to appreciate it,” he said in a hallway later. “It’s difficult. You’re a target everywhere you go. But we try to remain the hunter. We’ve got ideas about what we want to see happen.”
Might that include a perfect season? They could do it. Yes, they could.