Wichita, KS (SportsNetwork.com) - An early-morning showdown is on tap as part of the Tip-Off Marathon, pitting the 16th-ranked Wichita State Shockers against the visiting Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.
WKU has been the class of the Sun Belt Conference recently, as it has qualified for the NCAA Tournament four times in the past six years, including in both 2012 and 2013. The Hilltoppers had a modest regular season a year ago, going just 10-10 in conference play, but for the second straight year under head coach Ray Harper they ran the table in the Sun Belt Tournament, culminating in a 65-63 win in the championship game against FIU. In the Big Dance, they nearly became the first No. 16 seed to upset a No. 1 seed, but they ultimately fell short versus Kansas, 64-57.
Wichita State has made a name for itself as a mid-major power in recent years under head coach Gregg Marshall, and the 2012-13 campaign marked its best showing yet, as it went 30-9 overall and advanced all the way to the Final Four. The Shockers came into this new campaign with sky-high expectations, and they began with a bang in Saturday's opener by dismissing intrastate foe Emporia State, 93-50.
WKU leads the all-time series with WSU, 3-1, but all three of those victories came before 1959. The Shockers won the latest meeting in 2005, 84-81.
The Hilltoppers appear to be in great shape to make a run at becoming three- peat champions in the Sun Belt, as they return four starters from last season. T.J. Price was the team's leading scorer in 2012-13 with 15.2 ppg on his way to a Second Team All-SBC selection, and he is expected to make another leap in production during this, his junior season. George Fant (12.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg) is an anchor down low, and Brandon Harris (8.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg) is one of only two seniors on the squad. Aleksejs Rostov (4.9 ppg) started the final nine games last season as a freshman and brings much-needed size (6-foot-10) to the frontcourt. Trency Jackson, a transfer from Texas Tech, will be eligible following the conclusion of the first semester. WKU hopes that a cohesive returning unit will help it have more sustained success this season after shooting just 42.7 percent from the field and scoring 66.9 ppg in 2012-13.
While barely challenged in the opener by Emporia State, the Shockers put forth maximum effort in shooting nearly 52 percent from the field while creating 23 turnovers in the 43-point victory. In all, 11 players scored in the rout for Wichita State, led by 21 points by Missouri Valley Conference Preseason Player of the Year Cleanthony Early, who will be expected to put up similar efforts with regularity after averaging 13.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game last season. Ron Baker, another experienced performer from 2012-13 (8.7 ppg), tallied 17 points and six assists, while Fred VanVleet produced 12 points, six rebounds, six assists and four steals in his first career start. Kadeem Coleby had a quiet opener (two points, three rebounds), but he brings a physical presence to the frontcourt alongside Early.