"Digging In" is our slightly wonky look at what makes each of the Final Four teams tick, with an assist from the coaches who must scout and prep for said teams all season. Today: Wichita State.
When you talk to coaches about Wichita State, even when you're asking them to help you recreate their in-depth advance preparations, you frequently hear some variation of the same refrain: They play hard, they play smart, they play together and above all they brim with confidence -- they always believe they're the best team on the floor.
"You always see that with them," Creighton assistant Steve Merfeld said. "They play with that confidence that when they step on the floor they're supposed to win -- that has always been there."
Of course, thinking you're going to win and actually executing well enough to get it done are two different things, and finishing 5-5 in the final 10 games of your regular season (including losses to Indiana State and Southern Illinois), as Wichita State did, is a far cry from knocking off Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State en route to the Final Four.
If confidence is a constant, what's been the difference? Ron Baker is a good place to start. The redshirt freshman has done a rather remarkable thing: After missing two and a half months due to injury, and playing just 10 games before that injury, Baker returned to a big role in WSU rotation just in time for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. That would be impressive enough had he not been excellent since, but he has been: In seven postseason games, Baker has shot 8-of-15 from 2, 11-of-26 from 3, and 24-of-27 from the free throw line. He has 24 rebounds and 10 turnovers. And his key shots down the stretch against Gonzaga -- when Wichita State poured open one of the freakiest flash offensive floods we've seen all season -- effectively drowned Kelly Olynyk and Co.
Baker has also made the Shockers difficult to scout. Whereas most teams in the tournament have an entire season of film of the same lineup from which coaches can cull, Baker has not been a part of that bargain. When Merfeld and Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson, the two I asked for help with this scout, saw the Shockers in the regular season, Baker wasn't in the lineup.
Even so, there are still some things you can rely on Wichita State to do, some points of emphasis both coaches readily agreed on, and some things these obviously interested observers have seen during Wichita State's four-game run to the Final Four:
When Wichita State has the ball
1. Know where Carl Hall is at all times. This usually isn't very difficult -- Hall is a very active and physical forward on the low block -- but he is by far the best offensive rebounder on a team that typically whose best offensive feature, the only place where it ranks among the top 100 teams in the country this season, is its 38 percent offensive rebounding percentage. If you can take Hall off the glass, you can hold Wichita State to one shot, and you're in much better shape when it's a one-shot team. "When we were able to beat them we were able to neutralize Carl," Merfeld said. "He is just a monster on the offensive glass."
2. Keep Malcolm Armstead in front, and challenge Cleanthony Early as best you can. The Shockers aren't exactly known for being an up-tempo team, but they have gotten good looks out of transition and secondary sets all season, and Armstead has typically been the reason why. "He's good in transition on quick-hitters or he can settle in and run some of their stuff," Jacobson said. "He's good in [the half court], good in transition and good in the late shot clock, so you get a guy that can make plays in all three situations." Merfeld, meanwhile, compared Early's scoring and shot-making abilities to All-America Creighton forward Doug McDermott's, in that "you think you have him defended and the angles shut off and he finds a way to finish it anyway."
3. Finish the game. When you look at Wichita State's overall offensive numbers this tournament, there is good reason to be impressed: The Shockers haven't been held to below a point per possession to date, and they scored more efficiently (1.19 PPP) against Gonzaga than they did against La Salle (1.16). But Wichita State has been especially lethal late in games: According to ESPN Stats & Information, Wichita State is shooting 58.3 percent in the final five minutes of games in the tournament, up from 40.8 percent the rest of the game. The Shockers also have drawn twice as many fouls as their opponents in the final five minutes of games, and though they're shooting 34 percent on 3-point field goals, they've shot 44.1 percent in the second half. Maybe that's "clutch," or maybe it's a fluke, but either way opposing defenses have to stay locked in. (Just ask Gonzaga.)
Trademark set: UCLA Triangle Stack. "They run a million different things out of that set," Merfeld said. "And they get good shots out of it. It's varied a little bit in the tournament because they've been attacking so much more in transition, but in the half court they set up that stack and have dozens of little variations they get out of it."
When Wichita State is on defense
1. Run if you can. "The biggest thing to us has always been the ability to score in transition, before they set their defense," Jacobson said. "Once they set their defense they're a very hard team to play against."
2. Make the extra pass. Wichita State doesn't typically extend its defense in an effort to force copious turnovers. Instead, the Shockers prefer to stay in front. They challenge shooters well, particularly inside the arc, where they allow just 43.4 percent shooting, and they don't give up many open looks. "Their rotate on defense exceptionally well," Merfeld said. "You have to pass and make the extra pass to get good shots off against them." The importance of open, good shots is tantamount, because it's more likely you'll find one of those than find an offensive rebound and easy putback against a team that allows just 26.3 percent of available offensive rebounds (11th-best in the country) to slip into its opponents' hands.
3. Get to the line. If there is a weakness to the Shockers' defense, it's the propensity for fouls; their foul-shot-to-field-goal-attempt ratio is 37.8 percent, No. 278 in the country. "Get to the free throw line" is not a particularly sophisticated piece of advice, but it is without question the path of least resistance against the Shockers' D.
Defensive style: Wichita State is a man-to-man defensive team. This season, of the plays in the Synergy scouting database, Wichita State played 2,221 defensive possessions in the man-to-man and just 158 in zone. And yet Jacobson praised coach Gregg Marshall's ability to tweak things just so. "They change their defenses just enough so you never really settle in -- your ability to adjust and take care of the basketball is affected," he said. "Primarily they play man, but they'll throw a press on you after made free throws, they'll play a 2-2-1 three-quarter court and then settle back into a 2-3 zone. You have to be ready to handle that aspect."
Takeaways: For all of the crucial markers of Wichita State's basketball personality, the fact of the matter is that its next opponent is Louisville, which tends to Zerg-swarm opponents, drain them of their former characteristics, and leave nothing but dry husks in their wake. "The two things from Louisville's standpoint against Wichita State are rebounding and whether the defensive pressure, both in the half court and the full court, is effective," Jacobson said. "If [the Cardinals] get the game turned with their defense and then get out in transition and get going with their guards, and they rebound well, it could be a very difficult game for Wichita State."
The conventional strategy might be to slow the game down as much as possible, but Merfeld was convinced Marshall would tell his players to attack Louisville's press -- to push forward and get baskets if they crossed half court with a man advantage and the ball in a playmaker's hands, even at the risk of playing right into Louisville's strategy.
"They'll attack it, they're relentless," Merfeld said. "It's what their role is, their attitude -- what they're supposed to do right now. They're attacking, and they're playing exceptional basketball."