Shockers Gear up for Crucial Conference Game at Tulsa

Wichita State sophomores Dexter Dennis (0) and Erik Stevenson (10) (Courtesy photo)

Wichita State knows that good passing often means good shooting. It knows that to stay in the American Athletic Conference race, it needs to combine those two factors often in the season’s final month.

The 23rd ranked Shockers (17-3, 5-2 American) play at Tulsa (14-6, 6-1) on Saturday. Wichita State is in fourth place, a half-game behind third-place Cincinnati. Tulsa is tied with Houston atop the conference.

Wichita State, after slogging through many of the first six conference games, hit high points in Saturday’s 87-79 win over UCF at Koch Arena. UCF is a good defensive team and it plays some zone defense, so lessons learned may be applicable to the trip to Tulsa. The Hurricane built a surprising run to the top of the American with a superb defense, mixing man-to-man and a 3-2 zone.

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“You hear the coaches say, a lot of times, ‘Pass them into a shot,'” forward Dexter Dennis said. “Our guards are doing a very good job of finding other people.”

Wichita State’s offense, as most do, works best when the guards are on that track. In the previous six games, they alternated crisp passing and execution with stretches of forced shots and stagnant moments.

Against UCF, the guards drew in the defense, both man and zone, with drives into the lane. Once there, they made smart decisions, whether passing out to open shooters, passing to nearby big men for layups or dunks, or shooting themselves.

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Wichita State’s Dexter Dennis scored 18 points in a win over UCF. (Courtesy photo)

Rarely did the guards force shots against bigger defenders, a choice that turned problematic against shot-blockers in previous games.

Wichita State handed out 20 assists in the win over UCF, its high mark in conference play, and made 38.5 percent of its three-pointers (10 of 26), also a high in conference play. According to Pomeroy’s advanced statistics, Wichita State’s offensive efficiency of 1.08 points per possession ranks as its sixth-best this season and, again, its best in American games.

Freshman guard Grant Sherfield did a lot of the damage in the lane and will need to duplicate that performance at Tulsa. He had six assists, matching his high against UT Martin in November. Jamarius Burton added four assists against UCF with Dennis (three) and Tyson Etienne (three) also contributing.

“Driving for the purpose to create a help situation and get somebody else a shot . . . that’s been an emphasis since we’ve been in this offensive slump,” guard Erik Stevenson said. “Create offense for others.”

Tulsa holds teams to 56.9 points in conference play to lead the American in scoring defense. Opponents shoot 36.1 percent from the field and 23.4 percent from three-point range in conference, also the best mark in the American. Their average of 7.7 steals is tied atop the American with Temple.

“It’s like attacking most zones,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “You can’t just play the perimeter. You have to attack it. You have to get behind it on the baseline and in the middle.”

Wichita State, No. 30 in the NCAA Net rankings used to help determine tournament seeding, is in good shape for an at-large spot if needed. Marshall is happy with a young team that has already matched last season’s regular-season win total. Now, he senses, is the time for them to push for more. They are 2-2 in their past four games and face Cincinnati and Houston after Saturday’s game at Tulsa.

If the Shockers are going to make another jump this season, now is the time. Now is the time to cut back on turnovers, bad shots and defensive breakdowns, because the next three opponents will probably turn those mistakes into baskets.

“We’re pretty good, and we have to decide if that’s good enough,” Marshall said. “Are we satisfied with pretty good? Because we have some things that we need to clean up and I’ve got to do a better job coaching and we’ve got to do a better job of absorbing coaching and making it a priority to improve.”

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