With six games remaining, talk of Wichita State completing an undefeated regular season is gaining steam.
After making it through a two-game road stretch pegged as potential upset material, the Shockers hope to avoid a home letdown Tuesday night against streaking Southern Illinois.
While questions of an unbeaten run are cropping up more with each win, discussion of a weak schedule for the Shockers (25-0, 12-0 Missouri Valley Conference) isn't going away. They've yet to face a ranked opponent and likely won't before the NCAA tournament.
"Going to Indiana State and Northern Iowa back-to-back, that's a chore for anyone," coach Gregg Marshall said after Saturday's 82-73 win at Northern Iowa. "I challenge anyone that wants to talk about our league or our schedule to take that road trip and come out 2-0. It's a pretty tough thing to do."
The Shockers have had consecutive games decided by single digits for the second time this season, with the win over the Panthers coming three days after a seven-point victory at Indiana State.
Guard Fred VanVleet said getting everyone's best is expected at this point.
"Twenty-five games in, it comes with the territory," said VanVleet, whose team became the first since Memphis in 2007-08 to start 25-0. "We've been through it every game. Everybody wants to knock you off."
Guard Tekele Cotton scored 18 points Saturday while hitting 4 of 7 from 3-point range, including one that capped a 12-1 run after the Panthers closed the gap to 44-43 early in the second half.
"They made a great start to the second half, and our guys just responded beautifully," Marshall said. "We knew they weren't going to quit, and it was a long grind until the end."
Top scorer Cleanthony Early (16.3 points per game) added 16 while VanVleet had 14 points and seven rebounds.
Things weren't quite as close the last time the Shockers met the Salukis, an 82-67 road win Jan. 2 to open MVC play.
Early scored 23 while VanVleet chipped in 17 as Wichita State shot 60.0 percent. Sean O'Brien and Desmar Jackson scored 19 each for Southern Illinois while guard Anthony Beane, second on the team with 13.0 points per game, was held scoreless for the only time in his career.
Since then, Beane has emerged as a top scoring threat in the conference. Jackson leads the team with 19.7 points per game, but Beane has won back-to-back MVC Player of the Week honors.
The sophomore is averaging 23.8 points in his last four games, helping the Salukis (10-15, 6-6) win four straight for the first time since a six-game run Dec. 9, 2009-Jan. 1, 2010. Beane scored 26 on 9-of-14 shooting in Saturday's 72-54 home victory over Missouri State.
"No. 25 is playing pretty good right now," coach Barry Hinson told the school's official website. "He just absolutely took the game over for about a four-minute stretch and was phenomenal."
In two weeks, Southern Illinois has gone from the bottom of the MVC to a group of four tied for third.
The Salukis are 2-8 on the road and have dropped their last 10 overall against ranked opponents. They haven't defeated a top-10 team since 1967.