SALT LAKE CITY — Wichita State will desperately try to make 40 percent of its shots against a basketball team that rarely allows that accuracy. It needs to score on offensive rebounds against one of the nation’s best rebounding teams.
Welcome to the NCAA Tournament, where nothing come easy for a No. 9 seed.
Good sign: The Shockers produce easy baskets off set plays early in the game.
Bad sign: Malcolm Armstead dribbling near the three-point line, waving for a ball screen, as the shot clock hits eight seconds.
“Pitt’s going to guard you,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “I don’t want to say it’s varsity and the JV, but they’re some pretty high-level athletes with some great size. You’re going to have to make plays. You’re going to have to make shots.”
Marshall sets 40 percent as his team’s magic number. To get there against Pittsburgh’s man-to-man defense, the Shockers will need to score in the lane, they will need leading scorer Cleanthony Early to rebound from a March slump, and continued excellence from point guard Malcolm Armstead.
For the season, the Shockers (26-8) make 44.3 percent of their shots and are 21-3 when shooting 40 percent or better. They lost four times when shooting under 40 percent and dropped a fifth game after making 40.4. Four wins with under-40 shooting — including over NCAA Tournament teams VCU and Creighton — demonstrate the power of WSU’s defense.
Although stopping Pittsburgh (24-8) won’t be easy, the Shockers should count on an adequate defensive effort. Breaking 40 percent and 60 points will determine if they can advance or make a quick trip back to Kansas.
Pitt held 19 of its 32 opponents to 60 points or less. Opponents average 55.4 points and make 39.3 percent of their shots. Don’t count on supplementing the offensive with putbacks — Pitt ranks 13th nationally and first in the Big East in rebound margin at plus-7.1. Don’t count on fast breaks created by steals because the Panthers rarely commit turnovers.
WSU’s counter to Pitt’s size and defense is its playbook. The Shockers will rely on their sets to free Carl Hall and Early. They hope those quick-hitting plays can keep the Panthers from getting organized and dominant in a half-court defensive struggle. The Shockers often disguise their plays by running them from similar sets, which can make it difficult for opponents to diagnose the purpose of the play.
Plays that are predictable in Missouri Valley Conference play can take on a new life against outside opponents. WSU went 12-1 in non-conference games this season, with mixed results on offense. It shot poorly against VCU, Southern Mississippi and Iowa and in a loss at Tennessee. Scoring came easier in wins over Tulsa, Air Force and Detroit.
“A lot of people that we play, non-conference, don’t understand our system and we can steal easy baskets,” senior guard Demetric Williams said. “You’re going to have to score just by individual talent, but when you can score by manufacturing buckets, it’s a lot easier.”
The return of guard Ron Baker, who missed 21 games with a stress fracture in his left foot, provides a major boost. Baker, averaging 7.8 points, can make three-pointers and is a good passer. He understands the offense well enough to play some point guard.
“He can literally run three positions, right now, after being out this long,” Marshall said. “He knows how to play basketball. Some of it just comes down to simply moving, cutting, screening, getting other people shots, getting us quality shots.”
Mark Adams, analyst for ESPN and Fox Sports, points to two key factors for a healthy Shocker offense. He wants to see the ball passed to Hall close to the basket, where he can score or pass out of a double team. Armstead and Williams need to keep the ball moving to open gaps in the defense.
“I like those guys when they’re a little bit patient,” he said. “That’s when they have the advantage to put the ball on the floor and attack the paint off the pass.”
Armstead, who scored 28 points in the MVC Tournament title game, will be called on again to create a lot of the offense.
“He’s best when he initially defers and then slowly but surely takes over when a big shot needs to be made,” Adams said. “He’s been tremendous. He’s not afraid to take and make big shots.”
WSU’s offense played a supporting role to its defense most of the season, especially against the toughest opponents. After a cold-shooting end to January, the Shockers improved in February by making 45.1 percent of their shots and 37.1 percent of their threes in nine games.
In March, baskets will be tougher to come by against elite defenses. WSU expects defense and rebounding to carry it, while realizing the offense must do its part.