It all went according to plan for Wichita State against an overmatched opponent in its season opener. The Shockers now take a large step up in opponent quality late Monday night when they host Western Kentucky.
Coach Gregg Marshall's team had little trouble disposing of Division II school Emporia State, rolling to a 93-50 victory Saturday against a Hornets team playing its second game in as many days. Cleanthony Early scored 21 points and Ron Baker added 17 for the 16th-ranked Shockers, who now turn their attention to spoiling the Hilltoppers' opener.
Western Kentucky is the preseason favorite to win the Sun Belt Conference as it seeks a third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.
"(Emporia State) is a good team, and we've already been working on Western Kentucky in practice," said Marshall, whose team opened a four-game, seven-day homestand. "But I was pleased with the way our guys played today. We had a lot we wanted to accomplish before a big week, and we did that."
The Shockers shot 51.7 percent, outrebounded Emporia State 38-26 and forced 23 turnovers in large part with full-court pressure. Perhaps more importantly for Marshall, none of his starters logged more than 26 minutes ahead of this quick turnaround, and sophomore Fred VanVleet contributed 12 points, six rebounds, six assists and four steals in his first collegiate start.
Things figure to be tougher versus Western Kentucky, which returns seven of its top eight scorers from last season's 20-16 team that successfully defended its Sun Belt tournament title by winning four games in four days. It then gave Kansas a strong challenge in the NCAA tournament before losing 64-57 to the top-seeded Jayhawks.
Hilltoppers coach Ray Harper feels his team has the depth to combat Wichita State's up-tempo style and is not afraid of a fast-paced game against the 2013 Final Four participant.
"We have more interchangeable parts. I think we can survive an injury if we had to with this team," he said. "I don't know if that was the case in the last couple of seasons."
Harper hasn't fully settled on a point guard to join T.J. Price (15.2 points per game) in the backcourt, though Brandon Harris (8.2 ppg) appears to be the frontrunner. Freshman Brandon Price, however, has forced his way into the rotation after scoring 15 points in 21 minutes off the bench in Western Kentucky's 87-73 exhibition win over Campbellsville on Nov. 2.
"He really thinks the game," Harper said of the 5-foot-9 freshman. "If you notice, we went to him pretty early. I thought he was the difference, no question."
Western Kentucky has lost six straight to ranked opponents since upsetting then-No. 3 Louisville 68-54 on Nov. 30, 2008. Its last road win over a Top 25 team came at No. 4 Kentucky to open the 2001-02 season.
The Hilltoppers have won three of four all-time meetings between the teams, with the Shockers getting their victory in the most recent game in the 2005 NIT.
The 11:59 p.m. local start time is part of ESPN's Tip-Off Marathon that features 24 hours of continuous college basketball.