There’s not a college basketball coach who doesn’t preach defense and rebounding. Those words are probably on the tombstones of many.
But sometimes the gospel just doesn’t get through, no matter how emphatically a coach delivers the message.
Emphatic and Gregg Marshall are friends from way back. And the Wichita State coach, who has demanded defense and rebounding from the first day he stuck a whistle in his mouth, is more dependable with delivery than the mail.
When the Shockers’ leading rebounder, Carl Hall, went out with a hand injury a couple of weeks ago, Marshall didn’t flinch. Two other starters – Evan Wessel and Ron Baker – also are sidelined with injuries.
But Marshall kept bringing the message, one that Northern Iowa grimly had to endure the fallout from Sunday at Koch Arena during a 66-41 WSU win.
UNI shot 32.6 percent and was out-rebounded 40-22. When those things happen, you lose by 25 points.
“Coach Marshall grinds that into you in practice, defense and rebounding,’’ senior guard Demetric Williams said. “Either you get with the program or you’re not playing. When you first come here from high school or junior college, you look at it like you never had a coach who was so hard on me like this, who will actually sit you down if you don’t do those things.
“But sooner or later, the good players understand. And that’s how we play.’’
The Shockers haven’t been painting offensive masterpieces. They obviously miss Hall’s presence inside.
“We weren’t off the charts offensively,’’ Marshall said. “But we made some shots and it was good enough.’’
But in the three games since Hall was injured, the Shockers have held opponents to 34.2-percent shooting and hammered them on the boards 130-77.
Hall averages almost eight rebounds, yet making up those boards has not been an issue.
Every Shocker has learned to love rebounding, which is akin to making a toddler learn to love spinach. Rebounding isn’t for everyone unless you play at WSU. Then you better crash the boards – or else.
“These guys realize that Carl is a good rebounder and so is Evan,’’ Marshall said. “Ron Baker from the guard spot is a solid rebounder. But the nine guys in uniform tonight; everybody did their job. Everybody checked out, everybody went for the ball with two hands. We work on it every single day in practice and not just since the injuries occurred.’’
Northern Iowa, surprisingly, looked in over its head. The Panthers were picked to finish third in the Missouri Valley Conference in the preseason and had a nice non-conference run, going 7-5 with a schedule that included Louisville, Memphis, UNLV, Stanford, Iowa, George Mason and St. Mary’s.
The Panthers never matched Wichita State’s intensity, even though veteran coach Ben Jacobson knew what to expect. He’s one of the best coaches in the Valley and expected the Shockers to go to the backboards in waves.
Yet when it happened, he had no answer other than to sit his starters for substantial minutes in the second half. The Panthers were simply flummoxed by the Shockers’ intensity and want-to.
And isn’t want-to what defense and rebounding are all about?
Since Marshall arrived at WSU in 2007, the Shockers have out-rebounded 145 of 184 opponents. They have not been out-rebounded in a game this season.
Three starting guards – Williams, Malcolm Armstead and Tekele Cotton – combined for 14 rebounds. Guards who rebound – who actually enjoy rebounding – are a luxury many coaches only dream about.
Cotton, a football player who somehow wound up in a basketball uniform, had his best game with 12 points and six rebounds in 32 minutes. And he defended as if Northern Iowa was attempting to harm his family.
“That’s what Tekele is, he’s an athlete that rebounds and plays great defense,’’ Marshall said. “His forte, his calling card, has been my calling card as a coach. Rebounding has been an emphasis here all along. It can get a little bit better in January and a little bit better in February, but it better start in October.’’
If there’s ever a time when a WSU player starts to question how difficult it is to defend and rebound, all he has to do is look at the wins versus the losses. There are a lot more wins – 12 in 13 games this season, for instance.
So while the Shockers can be like a lot of other teams offensively – some nights good, others not so good – Marshall doesn’t allow a day off when it comes to defense and rebounding. Those are aspects of basketball a player can control. It’s simply a matter of out-working an opponent.
A couple of plays stood out Sunday. After taking a bad three-pointer, Shocker forward Cleanthony Early hustled to the other end to block a shot by UNI’s Seth Tuttle. Although Early was called for a foul, Tuttle made just one of two free throws.
Later, Williams took a questionable shot, one that caused Marshall to wince. But the senior kept his head up and proceeded to make a steal at half-court and scored on a dunk.
The Shockers’ unrelenting play is getting them through some rough times without three starters. And that’s because Marshall’s message – defense and rebounding — never gets lost in the mail.