CANCUN, Mexico — Wichita State’s men’s basketball team will stay at the Moon Palace Resort until Saturday. After playing six games in 12 days, the Shockers are ready for a brief vacation.
Wednesday’s 75-63 win over Iowa in the Cancun Challenge’s Riviera Division earned WSU its first tournament championship away from its home arena since 1963. Its first 6-0 start since 2006-07 is earning it some national respect. Seth Davis of CBS and Sports Illustrated called the Shockers the big early surprise in a Thanksgiving Twitter message — “Whole new team yet won at VCU and beat DePaul & Iowa to win Cancun Challenge.”
With its pre-Christmas non-conference schedule halfway finished, WSU certainly exceeded external expectations for a team with four new starters. They own an impressive road win (VCU) and double-digit victories over the Big East (DePaul, picked near the bottom of the 15-team conference) and the Big 10 (Iowa, picked near the middle of the 12-team conference). On Monday, WSU received 13 votes in the Associated Press poll (none in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll) and that number will rise next week.
“This team, man, is resilient,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “It’s a special group. I’m really excited that they’re playing so well right now, and I know they can play even better. I’m not saying we’re a top 25 team, but we’ve got to be in the conversation.”
Six games revealed several items, most of them positive.
• The roster turnover hasn’t been a problem, yet, largely because of WSU’s experienced guards.
Malcolm Armstead controls the game on offense with his quickness and ball-handling. Demetric Williams pairs with Armstead as disruptive forces on defense. Williams set the stage for the win at VCU with his physical defense on the Rams guards. Armstead is slicing up any team silly enough to press and scoring when needed. With those two playing well, WSU’s younger guards are protected.
“(Armstead’s) got a special talent for getting through (defenses) and making plays,” Marshall said.
• The Shockers are winning with defense.
DePaul shot 30.6 percent, making 15 baskets. Iowa shot 26.1 percent, making 12 baskets. For the season, opponents are shooting 35.9 percent from the field and 34 percent from three-point range.
While WSU’s guards are skilled at bullying ball-handlers, the big men are stop signs in the lane. Ehimen Orukpe blocked five shots against Iowa and has 12 this season. Carl Hall has 10 and Cleanthony Early six. With Orukpe in their heads, Iowa scored six points in the paint.
“He almost has more of an effect when he’s not blocking them because you’re wondering where he is, and you’re looking for him and you shot-fake and you’re looking around,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “He affected a lot more than that (five blocks).”
The defensive downside is fouling. WSU committed 57 fouls in Cancun, leading to a 21-point disadvantage at the foul line.
• WSU’s offense either rises to the occasion or is inconsistent. Take your pick.
The Shockers are shooting 42.9 percent from the field and 28.1 percent from three-point range. But the Shockers are capable of better, as they showed by scoring 48 points in the second half against DePaul and 42 against Iowa. The outside shooting nudged up to an acceptable clip against the Hawkeyes when WSU made 7 of 20 (35.1 percent). Armstead and Cleanthony Early, both 1 of 12 from three entering the game, found their stroke. Armstead made 3 of 5 and Early made 3 of 6.
WSU’s careful ball-handling (13.5 turnovers a game) and free throw shooting (72 percent) can cover up some poor shooting.
Early’s continued development can change this picture. He is averaging a team-leading 14 points and making 48.3 percent of his shots. At 6-foot-8, he has offensive skills rarely seen around the Missouri Valley Conference. While the Shockers aren’t shooting the ball accurately yet, they appear to possess a number of good scoring options.
• Depth will again be a strength.
Early is giving WSU a dynamic scorer off the bench. He torched the Hawkeyes for 25 points. He and Williams are the constants off the bench, both playing starter minutes. Against DePaul, sophomore forward Jake White picked up for Early’s foul troubles and scored six points and grabbed three rebounds in a season-high 17 minutes. Against Iowa, sophomore guard Tekele Cotton had five rebounds, three steals and scored eight points in 16 minutes. When Williams struggled with turnovers, freshman Fred VanVleet calmly ran the team for a few minutes.
“We’re on the same page and we’re tough as nails,” Cotton said. “If we stick together and keep doing what we’re doing right now, it’s going to be hard to beat us.”