Wichita State knows where it’s going come March.
Evansville wants to go, too, and the Purple Aces are seeking a signature victory Saturday when they host the Missouri Valley Conference superpower.
Though Evansville (13-4, 3-2) is tied for fourth in the Valley, two games behind the 13th-ranked Shockers (15-2, 5-0), it has shown itself a viable contender to perhaps emerge as a third NCAA tournament team from the conference. The Purple Aces – whose last NCAA appearance came in 1999 – already own a victory over No. 23 Northern Iowa, and their four losses have come by a combined nine points.
They’ve won back-to-back games since a 71-70 defeat on Jan. 7 to Loyola of Chicago – the team most likely to challenge Evansville for that potential third bid – and escaped Missouri State with a 56-54 victory Wednesday when D.J. Balentine hit a go-ahead jumper with six seconds remaining.
“Give those guys in the locker room a lot of credit. We made the plays down the stretch to get out of here with a win,” coach Marty Simmons said.
Egidijus Mockevicius had 14 points and 12 rebounds for a single-season school-record 13th double-double. The Lithuanian center, who is trying to become the first Division I player with 10 straight double-doubles since Siena’s O.D. Anosike had 17 in a row in the 2011-12 season, is fifth in the country in shooting at 64.9 percent and second in the Valley with 2.6 blocked shots per game.
Balentine has formed a lethal tandem with Mockevicius – the junior guard leads the MVC in scoring at 20.5 points per game and is eight shy of becoming the 16th player in Evansville history with 1,400 points.
The two lead a Purple Aces attack that ranks third in the nation in shooting at 51.1 percent and ninth in assists per game (17.5) while leading the MVC in scoring with an average of 74.6 points.
Wichita State is on course for its fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance and continues to be the flag-bearer for the Valley. The Shockers set a record with a 23rd straight regular-season MVC victory Wednesday, beating Southern Illinois 67-55 behind a career-high 25 points from Darius Carter.
”I thought we were running our offense efficiently early in the game,” coach Gregg Marshall said. ”We were running it crisply. Second half not as much. We weren’t great, but we were good.”
The 6-foot-7 Carter, who averages 12.5 points and a team-high 6.1 rebounds, likely will also be Wichita State’s first line of defense against the 6-10 Mockevicius. He totaled 13 points and eight rebounds in three wins over Evansville last season, while Mockevicius had double-doubles in the last two games and averaged 12.7 points and 8.3 rebounds while shooting 15 for 22 in the three contests.
Wichita State has limited Valley opponents to 54.2 points per game on 36.3 percent shooting, both improvements on their season marks of 58.5 points and 41.1 percent shooting.
The Shockers have won 12 straight MVC home games since a 59-56 defeat to the Purple Aces on Feb. 27, 2013.