Shockers proving last year was no fluke

By Steve Sell
January 09, 2014

Thursday’s thoughts...

• BODY LANGUAGE TELLS ALL — For those who thought the Wichita State Shockers’ Final Four run last year was nothing more than catching lightning in a bottle — or they were 2013’s version of Butler — think again.

The Shockers are proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that last year was legitimate. On Wednesday, they continued their unbeaten season with a 66-47 defensive strangulation of Illinois State.

That’s 16 in a row for the Shockers, who have climbed to No. 6 in the country. They’ve become more than just this little “feel-good” story deep in the Heartland. Despite being a mid-major, they are considered a major player on the national scene, though they don’t seem to mind flying under the radar.

I watched both the Shockers and Kansas’ game earlier in the evening with Oklahoma. Anyone who knows me understands how big of a believer I am in body language.

As I watched Kansas ease past Oklahoma —  albeit it was a good win for the Jayhawks to open Big 12 play — I couldn’t help but notice KU’s body language.

The heralded Andrew Wiggins, most of all, had a bad look all night, but that’s nothing new. Even though his season numbers are decent, they’re not what everyone expected. He looks so fragile mentally and plays incredibly soft, almost like he’s afraid of contact. He was a paltry 2 of 9 and scored nine points against the Sooners, not exactly the production everyone expects from the alleged “next LeBron James.”

Even Joel Embiid, who normally plays with such zest, had a lost look on his face. I think last night’s game had more to do with him having trouble adjusting to playing with goggles than anything else.

I would say most of the other Jayhawks’ body language was similar, as they’re a team that seems to be searching to find some level of consistency.

 Then I turned over and watched the Shockers.

Let’s make this perfectly clear right now — if you take the Jayhawks and the Shockers and match them up player for player, KU has a superior edge in talent. I don’t think you’ll find too many people who will argue with that.

But I can just hear Bill Walton right now. If Big Red watched the Shockers play, he would be gushing with, “that’s just beautiful basketball. That reminds me of coach Wooden’s UCLA teams, totally unselfish.”

It starts with Fred Van Vleet, the ice-water-in-his-veins point guard. The guy simply is unflappable. He runs this team with confidence and nothing shakes him. He has an uncanny knack of getting to the rim and may be one of the most underrated players in the country.

Then you have Scott City product Ron Baker, who always seems to make the right play at the right time. How so many schools missed out on him is beyond me. I don’t think I’d be missing the mark by too much when I say Van Vleet and Baker make up one of the top five backcourts in the country. Talented backcourts aren’t measured by how athletic they are, they’re measured by how much they get done. And Van Vleet and Baker get a lot done.

The Shockers’ supposed star is Cleanthony Early. He’s actually not had the year I thought he would, yet WSU is 16-0. Just wait until he catches fire.

The rest of the Shockers are perfect complements. Tekele Cotton is a lockdown defender and knows his offensive limitations. Then there’s a solid group of tough inside players who don’t try to do too much. It’s not the deepest team in the world, but it’s a “team” in every sense of the word.

No wonder Kansas coach Bill Self has no interest in scheduling the Shockers.

• WILDCATS LURKING IN THE BUSHES — After the first few games, a lot of Kansas State basketball fans were shielding their eyes.

The season-opening loss to Northern Colorado had Wildcat fans clamoring for Bruce Weber’s head. It was thought Weber was going to follow his Illinois pattern of winning with somebody else’s players, but not able to do it on his own.

But the Wildcats have relied on defensive toughness and a grind-it-out mentality to get this thing turned around, as they’ll take a 10-game winning streak into Lawrence on Saturday, which includes a victory over Oklahoma State.

We all know the Wildcats’ tough-to-stomach lack of success against KU, perhaps the most lopsided series in college basketball over the last 25 years. But never has K-State’s chances against the Jayhawks seemed better.

The Wildcats are just the type of team that can frustrate KU. As mentioned earlier, the Jayhawks are mentally fragile and don’t handle the ball well. Look for the Wildcats to try to muscle KU around and keep the game in the high 50s or low 60s.

If Kansas State can get it done Saturday, does that mean KU falls to No. 3 in the state’s pecking order?