Wichita State basketball coach Gregg Marshall loves talking about the future of this team, one that seems capable of adding to its brilliant past.
That past seems a little more like the present with each win that builds on the Marshall hallmarks of defense and depth.
On Saturday, he rolled out the “Play Angry” phrase, largely linked to the 2013 Final Four team, and it didn’t sound forced or hopeful. It sounded like it fit perfectly with this team after a 73-63 win over VCU.
“We’ve figured out how to compete at a very high level,” Marshall said. “And that rebounding and defense travels.”
Upcoming Event: Watch Abilene Christian vs. Wichita State men’s basketball – Sunday, December 29th at 2:00 pm CT – YurView KS (Cox Ch. 2022) and streaming at yurview.com.
That win combined with wins over Oklahoma and at Oklahoma State are pushing the Shockers back into the national conversation. They are No. 25 in Monday’s USA Today/Coaches poll and one spot out of the rankings in the Associated Press top 25.
“These last three games have taught us that when we buy in as a team, we play for one another, we play hard, try to be the tougher team each and every night then we have a great chance of beating everybody,” sophomore guard Jamarius Burton said.
The Shockers (10-1) seemingly open new doors to their potential with each victory recently. It remains a group accurately described as young – one senior and four of the top five scorers are freshmen or sophomores.
It can also accurately be described as an old-school Marshall team, a throwback to the bulk of his time at Wichita State in demeanor and playing style. Depth. Defense. Rebounding. Physical play.
The previous two seasons featured plenty of winning with different characteristics.
The 2017-18 Shockers earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament with an elite offensive attack. Its defense did not live up to past standards. The 2018-19 Shockers settled for the NIT and ended a nine-year run of 25 or more wins and seven straight in the NCAA Tournament.
The current Shockers are different. Their defense is No. 8 nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s statistical rankings, holding opponents to .877 points per possession. That fits with a six-year of Pomeroy top 30 defensive marks – highlighted by No. 1 (.887 points per possession) in 2016 – that ended when the 2018 team finished No. 111 (.1019).
This team defends with fervor, starting with a group of guards who are physical enough to control the perimeter by stopping drives, harassing ball-handlers and forcing tough shots. Defenders such as Burton (6-foot-4, 200 pounds), Grant Sherfield (6-2, 189) and Erik Stevenson (6-3, 198) contrast with recent backcourts that relied more on finesse and skill than physical play.
“We were holding the ball and they’re big and strong and they whack at you and they reach,” VCU coach Mike Rhoades said. “That ball stuck a little bit too much for us and that has something to do with that size and strength. That’s great defense. It wears you out.”
Center Jaime Echenique is an excellent shot-blocker and backup Morris Udeze is a strong positional defender willing to take charges. Depth helps – center Asbjorn Midtgaard played 16 strong minutes off the bench at Oklahoma State, grabbing five rebounds and blocking two shots.
“Whenever we’ve got guys back there that can protect the rim, whether it’s taking charges or blocking shots, it gives us guards confidence that ‘Hey, we can pressure our guy,’” Burton said. “If they get past us, our big man is there to help.”
The Shockers held VCU (ranked No. 25 in the USA Today Coaches poll at game time) to 37.7 percent shooting and forced 18 turnovers. Guard Marcus Evans, a 45.5-percent three-point shooter entering the game, went 1 of 6 from behind the arc and scored 10 of his 15 points at the foul line.
For the season, Wichita State limits opponents to 61.8 points and 38 percent shooting while forcing 16.5 turnovers a game. Its turnover margin is 4.5 and its rebound margin is 6.6.
“Defense determines the rhythm of the game,” Echenique said.
Ten Shockers play between 11 and 29 minutes a game, which limits fatigue and foul trouble as issues. Seven Shockers score between 7.1 and 13.2 points, which means several are capable of stepping up offensively. Six Shockers have led a game in scoring.
Those numbers harken to several Marshall teams that went deep into the bench and wore opponents down with their physical play. They are also wearing down teams with their focus on the things that made past Shocker teams feared.
“Understanding that rebounding and defending and running and coming up with loose balls – those are effort and toughness plays,” Marshall said. “Everyone can do it to different degrees. You have to go for the loose ball as hard as you can go for it, with two hands.”
Upcoming YurView Events:
Abilene Christian vs. Wichita State men’s basketball – Sunday, December 29th at 2:00 pm CT – YurView KS (Cox Ch. 2022) and streaming at yurview.com.
Grambling State vs. Wichita State women’s basketball – Monday, December 30th at 6:30 pm CT – YurView KS (Cox Ch. 2022) and streaming at yurview.com.