How not to handle the next nine games

Wichita State’s 2004-05 and 2009-10 teams are different in many ways. Seniors Jamar Howard, Randy Burns and Rob Kampman led the 04-05 team. It was an experienced bunch (at least in the starting lineup), hardened by two NITs, picked second in the MVC preseason after finishing in a tie for second in 2003-04.

This season’s Shockers have one senior on the roster and voters picked them fifth in the preseason poll. They were seen as a team with much potential, yet unproven.

The current Shockers can learn one important lesson from their predecessors.

  • WSU is 18-4 and in second place in the MVC with an RPI rank at No. 50.
  • In mid-February of 2005, the Shockers were 18-3, first in the MVC with an RPI rank at No. 23. They stood one spot from breaking into the Associated Press top 25.

Fans made plans for their first NCAA Tournament trip since 1988. Then the Shockers lost six of their final eight regular-season games. They lost at Bradley. Creighton made an MVC-record 82.4-percent of its shots in the second half – at Koch Arena. Northern Iowa’s Ben Jacobson (not the coach) ripped out their hearts with a buzzer-beater.

WSU went to the NIT. It was a bitter disappointment, soothed somewhat by two wins in front of enthusiastic crowds.

The Shockers weren’t sure what happened. You never are in those spots. It seemed unfair that Burns, Howard and Kampman played a leading role in rebuilding the program and didn’t get to enjoy the sport’s ultimate reward. For three months, they did everything right and it fell apart in three weeks.  Coach Mark Turgeon gave the explanation that made the most sense.

“It’s weird, because I really don’t feel like we’re playing that badly. It was kind of overwhelming to us because we knew how important each game was. Maybe we put too much pressure on ourselves. We felt like we had to be perfect down the stretch to get into the NCAA Tournament. Obviously we wouldn’t have had to.”

Burns agreed.

“When these underclassmen are upperclassmen, I hope they handle the pressure a little better than we did.”

There’s not as much pressure on the current Shockers. They aren’t tired of the NIT. There’s one senior giving college basketball his final shot. The RPI keeps the national spotlight off – nobody considers WSU a lock for an at-large spot now.

Pressure is there, however. The Shockers know their margin for error is slim because of the RPI. The lesson they can learn from the 2005 Shockers is that they can’t try to be perfect in the season’s final month. The NCAA at-large picture could look different in a few weeks. Other teams will lose. Other teams will feel the pressure and fade. It may feel like 9-0 is mandatory for WSU, and it might be. It might not.

WSU needs to win. It needs to play well. It doesn’t need to try to impress the NCAA selection committee each and every waking moment and it can’t let one loss seem like 10.