Evansville, IN (SportsNetwork.com) - The fourth-ranked Wichita State Shockers attempt to keep their unblemished season alive on Sunday when they venture to the Ford Center for a Missouri Valley Conference clash with the Evansville Purple Aces.
Wichita State is off to the best start in school history at 26-0, the second- longest winning streak by a MVC team next to the 1978-79 Indiana State squad, which won 33 straight en route to a National Championship Game appearance. The Shockers most recently held off Southern Illinois at home last Tuesday, 78-67, and at 13-0 in the MVC, they have a two-and-a-half-game lead on first place with five regular-season tilts to go.
The Purple Aces' season has not gone according to plan at 11-15 overall and just 4-9 in league play, although they have stepped up their game at the Ford Center with a 9-5 home record. Evansville recently snapped a four-game losing streak with a 104-98 overtime win versus Illinois State on Wednesday.
In the first meeting this season, the Shockers took a 81-67 decision at home to improve their standing in the all-time series to 23-16.
The Shockers had more trouble with a lackluster SIU squad than they would have liked, as they battled through 10 ties and seven lead changes before pulling away late for the 11-point win. They shot 46.9 percent from the field with eight 3-pointers and earned a 24-14 scoring advantage at the free-throw line. Pacing five teammates in double figures was Ron Baker with 19 points to go with five assists, two steals and two blocks. Cleanthony Early nailed 11-of-12 at the free-throw line for 18 points, Tekele Cotton and Darius Carter netted 12 points apiece and Nick Wiggins added 10 points to the balanced effort.
While Wichita State's offense this season has been impressive, shooting 44.9 percent from the field for 74.8 ppg, it has risen to elite status thanks mostly to its stout defense, as it allows opponents to shoot just 39.5 percent from the field for a scoring defense (60.3 ppg) that ranks in the top-15 nationally. Early (16.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg) is the spark plug, shooting 46.1 percent from the field and 84.8 percent at the free-throw line, and he is one of five players who collect at least 4.0 rpg. Baker scores 12.9 ppg, Fred VanVleet (11.6 ppg) hands out 5.1 apg and Cotton brings 10.0 ppg to the table.
Evansville nearly suffered an epic collapse earlier in the week, as its 25- point lead with under 10 minutes to play was erased down the stretch when Illinois State's furious comeback forced overtime. Luckily Evansville redeemed itself in the extra session, finishing the game on a 6-0 run to cap off the victory. In what was its highest-scoring output of the season, the team shot 52.8 percent from the field and took advantage of its ample free-throw opportunities, shooting 44-of-56 at the stripe. D.J. Balentine drained 20 of his 25 free-throw attempts, tying a school record, on his way to 38 points. Egidiju Mockevicius posted 18 points and seven assists, while Blake Simmons chipped in 17 points.
The Purple Aces have enjoyed a strong offensive attack this season, shooting 46.3 percent from the field for 71.1 ppg, but unfortunately their defensive effort (.448, 73.8 ppg) has not been up to par. The bulk of their production comes from Balentine, who ranks sixth in the nation in scoring at 23.2 ppg on 43.8 percent from the field, 40.8 percent from beyond the arc and 86.5 percent at the foul line. He also finds time to hand out 3.9 apg. No one else scores in double figures, although Simmons (9.8 ppg) and Mockevicius (9.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg) are on the doorstep.