With an 83-69 win over Indiana State in the championship game of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, Wichita State moved their record to 34-0. Coming off a Final Four run last season, the Shockers have established themselves as one of the best programs in the country, regardless of conference affiliation. The first team to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated in 23 years, they are a legitimate threat to cut down the nets in Dallas.
Like most mid-major teams, Wichita State’s strength is on the perimeter. College basketball is a guard’s game and Gregg Marshall’s team has one of the best backcourts in the country in Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker, both only sophomores. Van Vleet and Baker are skilled, tough-minded and physical guards that contribute on both ends of the floor. They take care of the ball, shoot it from the perimeter, get into you on defense and control the tempo the game.
At 5’11 195, Van Vleet doesn’t have the size or athleticism to be a big-time NBA prospect. However, at the college level, he is as good of a point guard as there is. You can see that in his two per-game ratios - 5.3 assists on 1.9 turnovers and 1.9 steals on 1.9 personal fouls. Van Vleet keeps Wichita State in every game because he gets his teammates easy shots without turning the ball over and he turns over the opposition without picking up fouls that would send him to the bench.
Baker, a deceptively athletic 6’3 215 combo guard, has a chance to play at the next level. He has a very well-rounded game, with the ability to create his own shot and finish at the rim, shoot from the perimeter, make plays for others, rebound and defend multiple positions. Baker is averaging 13 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.5 steals a game while shooting 45 percent from the field and 36 percent from three. He’s a former walk-on who could start for every team in the country.
The third member of their Big Three is Cleanthony Early, an NBA prospect in his own right at 6’8 220. Early, whom Marshall discovered playing D3 JUCO ball, is a prototype combo forward at the college level, giving Wichita State a lot of versatility in their line-ups. They can go big with Early as a 6’8 SF or play 4-out with him at PF. He can take bigger players to the perimeter, where he shoots 36 percent on this three-pointers with five attempts a game, or post up smaller ones in the lane.
As a perimeter-oriented team that likes to spread the floor and hoist 3’s, the Shockers are most effective with Early at the 4. Going small opens up minutes for their two other guards - Tekele Cotton (6’2 210) and Nick Wiggins (6’6 190), the older brother of the Kansas superstar. Cotton is another three-point shooter (38% on 3 attempts a game) while Wiggins gives them a defensive match-up for bigger wings. On the perimeter, Wichita State looks like a high-major team.
If the Shockers have a weakness, it’s upfront, where they get by with a more limited group of big men. They have two undersized bruisers at the center position - Kadeem Coleby (6’9 260) and Chadrack Lufile (6’9 260). While both understand their roles and make the right rotations on defense, neither has the size to match-up with NBA-caliber centers and both are very limited on the offensive end. The two combine to average a little over nine points a game.
Their most skilled big man is Darius Carter, another of Marshall’s junior college finds. At 6’7 235, Carter can bang inside and hit the mid-range jumper. He averages 8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1 block a game on 53 percent shooting. Carter, like Coleby and Lufile, can get by at center against small-ball teams, but he doesn’t have much of a chance to defend a 6’10+ player who can create his own shot. The good news is there aren’t many of those players in college ball.
That’s the one knock on Wichita State’s season - their schedule. With Creighton gone to the new Big East, there isn’t another heavyweight program in the Missouri Valley. They went 18-0 in conference but none of those wins came against an NCAA Tournament team, certainly not one with NBA-caliber big men upfront. Nor were they able to schedule many tough opponents in non-conference play - their only win over a ranked team came against fellow mid-major St. Louis.
If there’s a formula for shocking the Shockers, you can look at the film of their game against Tennessee, whom they defeated 70-62 in December. The Volunteers, as the rare high-major program willing to play in Wichita, gave the Shockers their other “signature” win this season. While they came up short, they had the half-time lead and were in the game all the way through. If the game had been played in Knoxville, it wouldn’t have been stunning to see it go the other way.
Tennessee had two bruising 6’8 260 big men - Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon - who could attack Wichita State on the block. While neither had a huge game, they collapsed the Shockers defense and forced them to crowd the paint. If the Volunteers had shot better than 6-20 from three, they would have had a good chance of pulling the upset. Just as important, Early didn’t have the size to defend either Stokes or Maymon, forcing Marshall to play more two big-man line-ups.
In that respect, Wichita State is similar to the Miami Heat, in that they are far more dangerous when they play 4-out with only one conventional big men. If they have to play two limited big men who can’t shoot 3’s at the same time, their floor spacing is compromised and there is less room to attack the basket. The Shockers want to get the game going up-and-down, where they have the advantage in terms of taking care of the ball and knocking down transition 3’s.
The key to knocking off Wichita State is personnel. To give them their first loss, you would want an NBA-caliber 4 or 5 who can get his own shot, another big man who can punish Early and make him play on the perimeter, a PG who can handle Van Vleet’s ball pressure and long, athletic wings who can run with Baker, Wiggins and Cotton. Basically, a team like Michigan State, which has Adreian Payne, Branden Dawsen, Gary Harris and Keith Appling.
There’s not much of a chance the Shockers see a team like that in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament and they may not see one in the second weekend, either. That’s what it will come down too for Wichita State - their draw and the possible match-ups in it. There’s been a lot of talk on TV about whether they “deserve” a No. 1 seed, but it doesn’t matter. The number next to a team isn’t nearly as important as how they match-up with the team across from them.