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The Wichita State Match-Up Blueprint

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.

Wichita State Continues Quest For Perfection

A game where the home team enters the half with a 42-24 advantage is usually seen as a blowout and unworthy of watching the rest of the way. Saturday night, however, had a different vibe when the fifth-ranked Wichita State Shockers trailed fellow Missouri Valley Conference opponent Missouri State. Although it was the biggest deficit the Shockers faced this season, there was a feeling that the undefeated Wichita State squad wouldn’t drop its first game of the season this easy.

And that feeling came to life in the second half.

“It’s the first close game we’ve had, to be honest,” Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall told the Associated Press. “We’ve had some games where we made some plays down the stretch to win by five or whatever … but as far as a game really being in doubt, this is by far the toughest game we’ve had.”

The Shockers converted turnovers into easy buckets with full court pressure that flustered the opposing Missouri State squad. When Wichita State opened the second half with a 7-0 run, the hometown Bears fans knew that the Shockers meant business.

After Wichita State’s sophomore point guard Fred VanVleet split a pair of free throws with eight seconds left to send the game into overtime, he scored seven of the team’s eight overtime points to escape with a 72-69 victory.

“It didn’t look good,” Marshall told Paul Suellentrop of The Wichita Eagle. “We knew these games were going to happen. In the end, we just made one more play.”

With the comeback win in addition to a 72-50 rout over Bradley on Tuesday, Wichita State improved to 18-0 and continues to have its best start in school history. After a run last season where the upset-minded Shockers advanced to the Final Four before falling to the eventual champs, Louisville, no one will be making the mistake of overlooking Wichita State again this season.

Its leading scorer from last season, Cleanthony Early, has continued the success into his senior year. He’s averaging a team-high 16.0 points and 6.6 rebounds per contest while his leadership and ability to defend opposing big men has been key for the Shockers.

At point guard, VanVleet has been a major contributor in various ways. He’s logged the most minutes for the Shockers and has only committed three turnovers in his last six games. VanVleet has shown the ability to score or distribute depending on the situation. He’s averaging 12.8 points, 3.7 rebounds, and a team-high 5.2 assists per game while shooting 49 percent from the field and 46 percent from behind the arc. His clutch scoring late against Missouri State was crucial to the victory.

Fellow sophomore Ron Baker might be the most underrated player in the country. He’s not a volume shooter, but is averaging 12.8 points per game and is making the most of his opportunities by shooting 45 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range. Baker is a quality defender and appears bigger than his listed 6-foot-3 size. He can handle the ball and run the point when VanVleet is off the floor, but primarily plays off the ball. Baker doesn’t have one elite skill, but is an overall quality player who could have an NBA career in his future.

Another key guard to the Wichita squad is Tekele Cotton. The junior has made his biggest contribution on the defensive end while also chipping in 9.6 points per game. Chadrack Lufile adds a defensive presence in the post.

As one of only four undefeated teams in the country, Wichita State has the easiest path to an undefeated regular season with only Missouri Valley Conference opponents in the way. Arizona and Syracuse will face much tougher competition in the Pac-12 and ACC respectively.

However, with a huge target on its back, Wichita State’s path to a perfect regular season will be much easier said than done (which showed on Saturday). Missouri State had its third largest crowd in its school history to root against the Shockers and there will be plenty of other packed arenas in hopes of seeing Wichita State drop its first game of the season.

“Anybody talking about being undefeated at the end of a college basketball season ­– I’m not going to say they’re out of their mind, but they haven’t coached a team going on the road through an entire season,” Marshall said in an article by Mike DeCourcy of Sporting News. “We anticipate more of these. Hopefully we’ll have the same resolve and toughness.”

The gutsy performance on Saturday showed that Wichita State won’t be letting its undefeated record slip easily. An unbeaten regular season may be too much to ask from the Shockers, but it certainly isn’t out of the question.

Recap Of Final Four Saturday

After a lackluster Elite Eight, the first two games of the Final Four exceeded all possible expectations.  And with a great ball-handling team set to take on a great pressing team, with the best offense in the nation set to play the best defense in the nation, the championship game just might live up to the hype too.

Louisville defeats Wichita St.

Somewhere there are Wichita St. fans that are heart-broken. But as a sports fan, I have to remind them of this. It will never be any more fun than this season. To return only 21% of your scoring, lose three players to injury in January, earn what everyone calls a horrible tournament draw against Pittsburgh and Gonzaga in the first two rounds, expectations couldn’t have been any lower. And to go from that to losing a nail-biter in the national semifinal, that is sports nirvana.

This is also why it is so wonderful that college basketball celebrates teams for making the Final Four. The NBA doesn’t celebrate coaches for making the Conference Finals. MLB doesn’t have a big ticker-tape celebration for reaching the Division Series. But when the Shockers fly back to Wichita St., they will have a big celebration. And they deserve it. The way they went down, the Shockers have nothing to hang their head about.

The previous teams seeded 9+ in the Final Four had lost by an average margin of 17 points. But Wichita St. did not go out without a fight. The Shockers went 26 minutes without turning the ball over against one of the top turnover forcing teams in the nation. They led 8-0, led by 12 in the second half, and even led 60-58 when it looked like it was slipping away. That last basket, with Louisville up 58-57 was truly magical. After it looked like Louisville had stolen the ball, Carl Hall fought for the ball on the floor, Cleanthony Early made a step-through floater “and one!” And that last 60-58 lead is a memory that can never be taken away.

But if Louisville was Goliath, they were the team that was impossible to cheer against. That is because Louisville truly represented what it means to be a team. If you thought based on his season-long PPG that it had to be the Russ Smith show, if you thought based on the run against Duke that it had to be the Peyton Siva show, Louisville showed that sometimes it takes a full roster to play for a national title.

The comeback started when walk-on Tim Henderson hit two huge threes. As the TV graphic said, he did not play in 13 games this year because Rick Pitino didn’t have minutes for him in the rotation. He scored 16 points in 25 games. And there he was scoring the two biggest threes any walk-on will ever hit.

Then there was the part where Luke Hancock took over. At one point he drove to the basket in transition and had his shot blocked. But the block careened out to a Louisville player, and they reset and got the ball back to Hancock. At this point, Hancock was mad. He wanted that lay-up. And for any normal player with a reputation as a stand-still three point gunner, what he did next would have been foolish. But Hancock wasn’t a traditional three-point gunner. He was a former lead-guard for George Mason (which include an NCAA tournament game-winner two years earlier.) And in that lead-guard role, Hancock learned to attack the basket late in games. And with the reset ending up in Hancock’s hands, he was not going to be denied. Hancock drove the lane, used the basket for protection, and got his driving lay-up.

Back-up forward Stephan Van Treese was key too. With the game tied at 58, Van Treese contested an in-bounds pass at half-court that allowed Russ Smith to pick up the loose ball and give Louisville a 60-58 lead.

Meanwhile Chane Behanan was there for a late tip in to make it 62-60 Louisville.

And there was Gorgui Dieng blocking a shot and causing a shot-clock violation with just 2:16 left.

The entire comeback was a team effort. (And even if he wasn’t key to the comeback, it is worth noting that back-up forward Montrezl Harrell kept Louisville in the game in the first half with his tip-ins.)

Last year’s Kentucky team was a great team because it was a wonderful compilation of supremely talented basketball players. But this year’s Louisville team is a team in the truest sense of the word. For Louisville, the sum was truly greater than the parts.

Michigan defeats Syracuse

At the end of the regular season, Jordan Morgan was returning from injury. And I remember Dan Dakich raving about Morgan’s play. Dakich noted that Morgan’s communication, range, and overall activity level was going to improve Michigan’s defense enough to make a run in the NCAA tournament. In many ways, the prediction did not work out. With Mitch McGary emerging, and John Beilein preferring to keep a perimeter oriented lineup on the floor, Morgan hasn’t seen enough playing time to improve Michigan’s defense. But with a trip to the championship game on the line and a two point lead, Morgan drew a charge that was the difference in the game.

Of course if you are Syracuse, you blame the officials. There was the play where Michigan should have been called for a charge. There was the play where Michael Carter-Williams was called for an illegal screen and fouled out. There was the lane violation. And then there was that last play where Brandon Triche, instead of going to the free throw line to tie the game, fouled out.

But the truth is, if you ask most Syracuse fans, this still wasn’t the most heart-breaking loss of the last 10 years. When you talk to the die-hards, the folks that watch this team every game, they all know the truth. This wasn’t the most talented Syracuse team by any stretch. On a neutral floor, most of them would pick last year’s Syracuse team to beat this year’s team easily. But even if this Syracuse team wasn’t the best, or even the most heart-breaking, it had something that can never be replaced. It had grit. This year’s Syracuse team fought for every inch of real estate in the paint. It never gave up defensively. It fought vigorously for offensive rebounds. And even if the refs kept this team from reaching the championship game, this post-season was an overwhelming surprise.

And if many of the key players graduate or declare for the draft, Syracuse fans can take heart in the performance of CJ Fair. Fair led all scorers in the game, but it was his play with 12:45 left in the second half that I thought was symbolic of the season for Syracuse. After the Orange missed a three pointer and McGary had secured a clear rebound, Fair snuck behind and stole the ball and got fouled. Syracuse was down 8 at the time, but Fair’s action basically signaled to his teammates that they weren’t giving up. And in 2013, that was the story of the Syracuse season. They could have given up in February when the offense wasn’t working, but instead they played their hearts out to the point where they were one referee call away.

Meanwhile, the story for Michigan was pretty clear. I liked how Kenny Smith put it at half-time. Everyone knows how to beat the Syracuse zone. Michigan was just the first team to do it. They got offensive rebounds, they got out in transition, and they made tough deep threes. The formula is simple, but Michigan was the first team to do it.

Final Notes

-Somewhere Florida fans were watching Nik Stauskas go 0-4 from 3 and cursing at their TVs.

-I liked when Clark Kellogg said Ron Baker was 20 of 23 from the free throw line in the tournament and those free throws “never hit the rim”. Really, the three misses were air-balls?

-At some point Steve Kerr said, “Trevor Cooney is a much better three point shooter than his numbers show. He has made only 26% of his long range shots this year.” I can understand that if you have lead guard who takes a lot of shots with the shot-clock winding down, or if you have a superstar who is constantly double-covered, that you can make arguments like this. But when a freshman keeps missing open jumpers, I don’t know how you can really argue with the numbers.

-Doug Gottlieb had his best diagram of the tournament at half-time of the Louisville vs Wichita St. game when he showed how Wichita St. used Gorgui Dieng’s preference to defend the paint against him. There are ways to negate a great shot-blocker, but it takes great execution.

-I truly believe it was a Louisville comeback, not a Wichita St. collapse. Looking back at the game-tape, the only play where I thought Wichita St. took the foot off the gas was when freshman Ron Baker passed up a wide-open three from the top of the key with a 9 point lead. Michigan on the other hand had a big collapse. They stopped being aggressive with the basketball with 4 minutes left, and it almost cost them the game.

March Madness Through The NBA Lens (Round Of 64)

While the NCAA Tournament has cachet all its own, one way of looking at the Tournament from the perspective of NBA talent evaluators. Here are the games and prospects most worthy of your attention for the round of 64.

2012 Missouri Valley Power Rankings

Wichita State had a dominant season, losing just twice and have an FIC differential more than twice as great as a strong Creighton team.

Who Is Hot, Who Is Not

When it comes to February in college basketball, some teams get better, the rest get left in the rear view mirror. Here are the teams that are surging and falling over their past 10 games.

Conference Rankings (End Of Jan. Edition)

As we have commonly seen in recent seasons, the Big East has been the deepest conference in the country.

 

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