On The Road with John Rooke: Wichita State

It's there. You can see it. They're growing up – right before our eyes.

Generally speaking, losing stinks. No argument there, right? But while the Friars' 82-74 loss to Wichita State Wednesday night may have been a loss on the scoreboard, the game wasn't a complete loss for a team with eight freshmen and sophomores on the roster. Positive steps taken continue to be taken, and while there will still be a step or two taken in reverse…the progress is moving steadily in a forward direction.

And no, this wasn't any moral victory, either. No one in the lockerroom at Charles Koch Arena was taking solace in coming close, even considering the circumstances. This team doesn't like losing. The game actually turned out to be a perfect learning experience for the Friars, as they try to soak up as much knowledge as they can before battling in the Big East. Wichita State provided an excellent pre-conference test – a road game with a loud, passionate sellout crowd, and playing against a team that has played into the post-season three straight years, in a conference that is widely respected in basketball circles. The Shockers (and their fans) delivered on all counts. And for the most part, the Friars accounted for themselves pretty well.

After a chartered flight from New York on Monday night, the team arrived at its' Wichita headquarters at 3:30 am CT Tuesday. The flight was delayed somewhat by an impromptu stop in Indianapolis for re-fueling, as the headwinds en route resulted in a little extra fuel consumption along the way. Tuesday was spent sleeping in a bit, followed by a two-hour practice on the floor, and study time off the floor. The team enjoyed dinner together at a local steakhouse, and the fun continued into the evening back at the hotel thanks to the comedy stylings of DeSean White… who apparently does a strong Chris Rock impersonation. The laughter over his routine continued into the team shootaround at WSU on Wednesday morning.

Of course, many of us were laughing at DeSean for a much, much different reason Wednesday night. But we weren't laughing at his off-the-court antics, to be sure. White stepped into game action for the first time this season, as he has been recovering from a stress-fracture in his right foot. His first practice since the Mal Brown scrimmage was Tuesday, and afterward, he pronounced himself ready to play. Boy, did he play. Coach Welsh mentioned before the game that he would work DeSean into the game at some point Wednesday, rather than "save" him for URI on Saturday, since he expected to need his physical presence in the paint. He also mentioned that White had been diligent in his cardio workouts trying to keep in shape while injured, and that he liked DeSean's attitude. He seemed hungry.

What he didn't expect – no one did – was DeSean's prowess shooting from 3-point range. After falling behind 21-7 in the game's first five minutes, White entered the lineup and shot the Friars back into the game with four 3-point field goals, three of them coming on his first 3 shot attempts of the year. And to top it off, he had been oh-for-one from 3-point range for his career, before Wednesday night. White finished with 12 points, shooting 4-of-6 from outside the arc. Holy moly, indeed.

Additionally, Herbert Hill turned in a career best 22-point performance, picking up Randall Hanke and his teammates with timely jump hooks and put-backs in the paint. Hill's jump hook was devastating, and it's a shot that is practically impossible to defend. The Friars' problems, however, were in trying to defend a tougher, smarter Shocker team. Wichita State returns only one starter from a 22-win season a year ago, but several key role players are back, plus they added two solid junior college wings and gained the eligibility of Marquette transfer Karon Bradley. They'll be tough for any team in the Missouri Valley Conference to defend.

PC's problems came mostly from recognition, which should get better over time. There was an improvement in zone defense, yet the Shockers were able to get into the middle too often. While the Friars had ruled the paint in the opening three games, WSU outscored Providence 38-24 in the lane, and won the backboard battle 35-27. Free throws were also a problem, as the Friars managed to make just four out of their 10 attempts. They were outscored 18-4 from the line for the game.

One other item stood out, from the second half. The Friars were in the game the entire way, but just couldn't get over the hump. They had pulled within one point with 11 minutes to play, when Sean Ogirri uncorked three timely threes to keep the Friars at bay. Still, down 10 with less than two minutes to play, a scramble for a loose ball under PC's basket resulted in Geoff McDermott going to the floor and nearly ripping the arms off of a Shocker player to win back a possession. It was just a single, rather meaningless possession, with the game already decided. Yet McDermott reacted with a fierceness that is rarely seen on a basketball court. That memory will stand out for several who saw it happen, and it bodes well for McDermott and his teammates in the games that lie ahead.

They'll need that toughness as the road trip continues Saturday in Kingston, against URI – the next chance to continue growing up.

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