St. Louis, MO (SportsNetwork.com) - The top-seeded and unbeaten Wichita State Shockers tip off their Missouri Valley Conference Tournament experience on Friday afternoon when they take on the ninth-seeded Evansville Purple Aces at the Scottrade Center.
The winner will advance to the semifinals on Saturday to face either Missouri State or Illinois State.
Evansville began tournament play in Thursday night's opening round, when it pulled off a small upset over eighth-seeded Drake, 69-61. Although the Purple Aces are a mere 14-18 overall this season, they have been riding high of late with three consecutive victories.
Wichita State, the No. 2 team in the country, ran through the regular season a perfect 31-0, including an 18-0 ledger in league play, as it became the first team since the 2003-04 Saint Joseph's squad to enter the postseason undefeated. The Shockers won the regular-season conference championship in 2013 and had an outstanding run to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid, but this time around they will try for their first MVC Tournament title since 1987.
The Shockers defeated the Purple Aces twice during the regular season by a combined 30 points. Wichita State now leads the all-time series with Evansville, 24-16.
The Purple Aces carried an 11-point lead at the half over Drake in their opening-round matchup and never allowed their advantage to dip below six in the second stanza. The squad shot 51.2 percent from the field on the evening, and while it was only 2-of-11 from 3-point range, it made up for it was a strong 25-of-32 showing from the free-throw line. D.J. Balentine led the way with 30 points, while Egidiju Mockevicius flirted with a triple-double by posting 19 points, 10 rebounds and a school-record-tying eight blocks.
On the season, Evansville actually outshoots its opponents from the field, 46.7 percent to 44.4 percent, but it still scores fewer points (69.8 ppg) than it allows (72.0 ppg) due to its negative margins in both the rebounding (-2.2) and turnover (-0.2) battles. Balentine is the nation's seventh leading scorer with 22.3 ppg and has knocked down 212-of-249 at the foul line (.851) while adding 4.3 apg for good measure. Mockevicius acts as an anchor in the paint, shooting a blistering 63.7 percent from the field for 10.5 ppg to go with 8.2 rpg and 2.1 bpg.
The Shockers' most recent contest came at home to Missouri State last Saturday, which they won easily, 68-45, by outshooting the Bears from the floor, 51.2 percent to 31.4 percent, and dominating the rebounding battle, 43-25. Cleanthony Early was the catalyst with 19 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field and 7-of-9 at the free-throw line, while Tekele Cotton and Darius Carter added 13 and 10 points, respectively.
Wichita State's excellence on both ends of the floor has been on display all season long, as it shoots 45.7 percent from the field for 75.4 ppg while allowing a mere 59.9 ppg on 39.4 percent shooting. Adding to its well-rounded attack are positive rebounding (+8.1) and turnover (+1.9) margins and a stellar free-throw percentage (.736). Early paces the squad in both scoring (15.8 ppg) and rebounding (5.9 rpg) on 46.3 percent shooting from the floor and 84.8 percent at the stripe. Ron Baker pours in 13.1 ppg, Fred VanVleet stuffs the stat sheet with 11.9 ppg, 5.3 apg, 4.0 rpg and 1.9 spg, and Cotton adds 10.4 ppg to the mix.