Final Four Profiles In-Depth: Wichita State ShockersPosted by Chris Johnson on April 2nd, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
With the possible exception of Wichita State, there are no earth shattering secrets to reveal about the four teams remaining in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. This Final Four comes packaged with a little bit of everything: the odds-on favorite to win the whole thing (Louisville); a 900-win coach with a legendary zone defense at his disposal (Syracuse); a fifth-place Big Ten team catching fire at just the right time (Michigan); and the Shockers, the barely name-recognizable MVC power whose four-win run has not been given its proper due. It is a fun mix that sets up any number of possible outcomes in Atlanta this weekend. Will Louisville continue its robotic obliteration in the national semifinal and final rounds? Will Wichita State “shock” (better to get that pun out of the way sooner than later) the college basketball world? Can Michigan’s youth handle the national spotlight? Or will Syracuse’s zone throw two more offenses into utter dysfunction?
All of these questions are worth thinking about, but the answers are never as clear as what’s on the surface. Louisville, at the moment, looks like the best team in the country; the Shockers look overmatched. But if you think even for a second analyzing Final Four match-ups is as simple as the above A > B comparison, think again: These games are inherently unpredictable. That’s what makes them fun – what makes this entire Tournament comprise the most entertaining three-week period in American sports.
By now you’re well-schooled on each of the remaining participants, but I’m going to try and take you deeper, to dig beneath the superficial qualities that make both match-ups objectively simple to figure out. Here, I’ll take you in different directions, raise hopefully enlightening statistical analysis and maybe, by the end, you’ll have a greater sense of how each team stands going into what should be another excellent weekend of NCAA Tournament hoops.
To start off our team preview series, which you can expect each day from now until Friday, the least known commodity on the block, Wichita State, is up to bat.
Pre-NCAA Tournament Capsule. One year removed from earning a #5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, a highly successful 27-6 win season and an MVC regular season championship, Wichita State entered 2012-13 with rightfully lowered expectations. You lose your top five scorers from a year ago, enter an overall improved league with an even more improved chief rival (Creighton), and you get the feeling a return trip to the NCAA Tournament maybe just isn’t in the cards this season. This was set up to be a textbook transition year, a season to take inventory and reload for the future. The spoils of 2011-12 – an at-large Tournament berth, regular season conference championship, that kind of stuff – were pretty much off the table. Now Gregg Marshall’s team has not only exceeded last season’s first-round Tourney knockout, but find themselves two wins away from the completely unthinkable: a first-ever national championship.
Before they could ever think about making a run to the Final Four, WSU had to get here first. It did that by winning all but one non-conference game (at Tennessee), then rolling to a 12-6 record in MVC play and losing two championship-deciding clashes with Creighton – one a regular season finale where Doug McDermott scored 41 decisive points, the second a tough three-point loss in the Arch Madness title bout. Wichita was awarded a #9 seed in the West region for its surprising regular season success, but even then, at the end of a season that did everything to disabuse the notion this team couldn’t contend in a so-called “transition year,” no one thought much of the Shockers’ chances in a first-round #8/#9 fixture with Pittsburgh. No one saw this coming.
How They Got Here. At the outset, it wasn’t crazy to think Wichita State had the most difficult, if not the most unlucky, opponent pairing of any #9 seed in the field. Eight-seed Pittsburgh wasn’t just a trademark Jamie Dixon team – physical, tough, ferocious on the boards – it was also extremely underrated on a per-possession basis. WSU outslogged Pitt over 40 minutes, got 22 points from Malcolm Armstead and 21 from Cleanthony Early and sent home the trendy pick to upset #1 seed Gonzaga in the next round. With the Panthers out of the way, WSU took it upon itself to dispatch the WCC juggernaut. The Shockers shot 50 percent from beyond the arc after hitting just 2-of-20 one round prior and, despite allowing Gonzaga to corral 53 percent of its own misses, made just enough plays down the stretch to hold on for a six-point win.
The next match-up, against #13 seed La Salle, lined up as a perfect stylistic advantage for the Shockers. The Explorers’ four-guard lineup never really stood a chance against Carl Hall and the rest of the Shockers’ imposing interior, and after battering La Salle on the boards and maintaining physical control all the way through, I think it’s safe to say Tyrone Garland, Tyreek Duren and Ramon Galloway know a thing or two about Wichita, Kansas. The Shockers’ final triumph (Ohio State) started off as a rout, then narrowed to a one-possession game in the closing moments, just in time for freshman guard Fred Van Fleet to do this and the Shockers to stamp out OSU’s desperate last-ditch comeback attempt.
Final Four History. The last time Wichita State made it this far in the NCAA Tournament, just 23 total invitations were handed out, UCLA rolled to championship No. 2 of the John Wooden dynasty and the Shockers registered a fourth-place finish after losing a consolation game against Princeton. It was 1965 – the second year of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency. The furthest WSU has been since is the Elite Eight, where in 1981 they fell to LSU as a #6 seed. More recently, the #7 seed Shockers burst into the Sweet Sixteen in 2006, only to fall victim to Jim Larranaga’s Final Four-bound George Mason team.
Season High Point. The overall consistency of Wichita State’s season masks a truly distinguishing high point, but if there was one triumphant moment that put the Shockers on the national radar, at least among college hoops enthusiasts, it was the January 19 home win over Creighton. The Bluejays would struggle down the back half of MVC play, but their first meeting with the Shockers coincided with a No. 12 ranking in the national polls and all types of national media love. The Shockers were being bandied about as #3 seed material, and no matter what a 17-2 record and perfect win-loss mark at Charles Koch Arena said about Wichita, the Bluejays were tipped to win that game, and forward Doug McDermott was primed to add another chip to his brimming National Player of the Year candidacy.
That’s when the Shockers revealed the grit and physical chops that have largely powered their remarkable Final Four run. McDermott scored 25 points, but Creighton turned it over 14 times to Wichita’s six, and Hall – playing just his second game after sitting out the previous seven with an injury – outshined McDermott by dropping a 17/13 double-double and leading his team to a huge three-point win. Wichita State had arrived. (And if you’re looking for an earlier “high point,” the Shockers’ November 13 win at VCU was a credible non-conference precursor to just how dangerous this team could become.)
Season Low Point. Just 10 days after the big win over Creighton, the Shockers descended into a mini-tailspin. They lost at home to Indiana State, a reputably above-average MVC team with NCAA Tournament aspirations. Next came a five-point defeat at Northern Iowa; even that loss, given NIU’s almost perpetual toughness inside conference play, didn’t call for any serious mid-season reevaluation. But that’s not all Wichita did. No, the Shockers followed up those two disappointing but ultimately understandable defeats by losing at Southern Illinois, this year’s last place finisher in the MVC and more damning defeat (at home or on the road) than any other in an arguably top-heavy league.
All of a sudden, all of Wichita’s good work to date was up for debate; if the Shockers could lose three games against mediocre MVC competition, how good can they really be? Is this a viable at-large outfit? Marshall, for one, had his doubts. “When we lost that third game on a controversial call at Southern Illinois, I’m thinking, Oh, boy, we may have just shot our chances to get in the NCAA Tournament right in the foot, we might have just blown it,” he said about the Shockers’ three-game losing streak on a Final Four conference call Monday.
What’s Working. Any bare-faced analysis on Wichita State this season had to be accepted at face value. Why? The Shockers played without a multitude of key players; To wit: center Ehimen Orukpe, guard Evan Wessel, Hall and redshirt freshman guard Ron Baker all missed games at various points, each of them making any comprehensive judgment on Wichita’s fully-formed on-court product incomplete. The last member of that list is particularly important. Baker missed 21 games, including six of WSU’s seven regular season losses. Since returning for the start of Arch Madness, Baker has added another physical presence to an already imposing backcourt cast – Malcolm Armstead, Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton match up at least semi-favorably with most any guard trio remaining in this field – all while providing bulldog defense at the point of attack, composed ball handling and a controlling influence on an offense with an abundance of interchangeable parts.
Even when shots aren’t falling (as was the case against Ohio State, when he finished 0-for-2 from the field) or assists don’t lead to easy buckets, Baker slows it down, settles he and his teammates into Wichita’s preferred down-tempo style and exudes rock-solid confidence at the most highly pressurized position in the most highly pressurized tournament of the season (or any season, really). In four NCAA Tournament games, Baker has failed just once to break the 100.0 offensive rating barrier, made all but three of his 23 free throw attempts, and his play on the other end, where Baker constantly harasses opposing backcourts, has helped amplify Wichita’s top-25 efficiency defense into something resembling an elite unit.
Biggest Vulnerability. Of the four Elite Eight games this weekend, only one was remotely close in the second half. But it never should have gotten there: Wichita State had OSU in a 20-point hole with just over 12 minutes remaining in the second half. The Shockers were running away from the Big Ten Tournament champion, and Ohio State was desperately scrambling to escape a crippling upset loss. WSU could (and probably should) have waltzed into Atlanta with nary a bit of second-half doubt. The only conceivable avenue of recourse for the Buckeyes, as it turned out, was Wichita State itself. The Shockers committed needless turnovers and made a handful of careless mistakes down the stretch. They gave Ohio State life when it had all but flat-lined minutes earlier. They allowed LaQuinton Ross to find his groove on offense and Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott to lock the Shockers down on defense. The world was crashing in around WSU.
I paint that scenario with the ex-post knowledge that Wichita did in fact hold on for a four-point win, but the mounting second-half tension – the errors and missed shots and careless defense WSU exuded down the stretch that let OSU back into the game – should not be ignored. The creeping suspicion commonly known as “mid-major legs,” the idea that teams from non-power leagues can’t hold up in the face of high-pressure NCAA Tournament situations against high-major opponents, is a misconceived tag with little to no bearing on reality. But if Wichita State had not managed to stay afloat in the final minutes of Saturday’s thrilling Elite Eight win, the term would have risen to the forefront, and I would have had no moral or empirical defense against its use. Look, I think Wichita State has every right to challenge Louisville this weekend; I just hope their second-half woes, the problems that brought the Shockers on the precipice of devastating defeat, don’t re-emerge in the brightest spot college hoops has to offer.
Why Wichita State Can Win It All. Precisely because there is nothing to suggest Wichita State cannot win it all. Just because WSU’s league membership doesn’t say Big East or Big Ten doesn’t mean it’s not just as good as the three remaining teams (Syracuse, Louisville, Michigan) belonging to those respective leagues. Wichita State has a highly coveted coach, strong administrative support and players with just as much of a right to a Division I scholarship as any of the top-150 recruits littered about the rest of the Final Four field.
Besides, Wichita State isn’t a Cinderella. Those stories – the Norfolk States and Lehighs and Northern Iowas and Bucknells – end in the early rounds. Marshall framed the analogy in the context Disney’s famous fairytale. “Cinderella found one glass slipper,” he said Monday. “We won four games. I don’t think she found four glass slippers. Cinderella usually wins a game or two. When you get to this point, you’re good enough to win it all.” Ownership bias aside, Marshall has a very real case.
Why Wichita State Can’t Win it All. This preview is supposed to be about Wichita State, and Wichita State alone — the other three teams will get their spotlight in the coming days. In every preceding section, my words are as Shocker-centric as reasonably possible, but this is where the harsh realities of match-up specifics cloud team judgment. Wichita State can’t win it all because on Saturday, at 6:09 PM ET, Wichita State will play a game against the best team in the country. Louisville entered this NCAA Tournament as the heavy favorite to cut down the nets in Atlanta, and so far, has provided no evidence to even tangentially verge off their dominant perch.
The Cardinals take what Wichita State does best – physical defense, rabid glass-cleaning, getting the large majority of its buckets inside the three-point line – and implements it with better athletes, better team cohesion and a more pressure-adept, tactically-in-tuned, Tournament-proven coach. Louisville is Wichita State at its devastating fullest; the opposite applies only if the Cardinals are terribly awry in multiple facets of their game. In other words, Wichita State needs to play its best game of the season, have Louisville play something close to its worst game of the season, and hope the capricious whims of shot-making grant their allegiance to all things black and gold. Louisville is on a crash course to national glory. It’s up to Wichita State to find a way – miraculously, improbably, in a different universe – to stop it.