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Free-falling: Last-place Salukis hand Wichita State its third straight loss

(USA Today Sports Images)Three weeks ago Wichita State was one of the biggest surprises of the college basketball season atop the Missouri Valley and nationally ranked. After suffering its third straight loss 64-62 to last place Southern Illinois, the Shockers might be in trouble.

A team that seemed destined for the NCAA tournament just three games ago, now has some serious questions swirling around it, such as, can it improve its half-court offense and perimeter shooting to counter the pack-it-in defensive strategy it has seen from opponents recently? Scoring is down, turnovers are up and the Shockers are nosediving.

If the NCAA tournament started this week, Wichita State might still get in with a low seed thanks to quality wins over VCU and Creighton. But if the Shockers don't fix the issues that have led to three consecutive losses, they're more likely headed to the NIT. Coach Gregg Marshall has to find answers quickly with seven games remaining in the regular season and a strong finish required to ease the growing doubts about his team.

Consider that the SIU team Wichita State lost to Tuesday lost its previous game Saturday by 36 points to Illinois State. SIU coach Barry Hinson was making jokes just a few days ago about his team finding ways to screw up. The Salukis had won once in the previous 12 games before beating the Shockers. Making matter worse, Wichita State surrendered a 17-point, first-half lead in the loss.

Put the loss to SIU aside and it's not really a surprise to see the Shockers hit a rough patch. After all, this was a program that had to replace its five leading scorers from last season and have a lot of new pieces mesh well early. Marshall made that happen over the first three months of the season and expectations skyrocketed. Now Wichita State is coming back to earth and injuries might finally be taking their toll as film gets around showing the it struggles when the pace is slowed and opponents force the Shockers to make shots over the defense.

Marshall will undoubtedly develop some answers, but it must happen soon because more ugly losses could put the Shockers in position of needing to win the Valley tournament to avoid the dreaded bubble.

Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleRingo

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