SALT LAKE CITY — Wichita State coaches like to keep the routine and the surroundings on the road as close to home as possible.
On the dry-erase board in the Koch Arena locker room, the words “Play Angry” are scrawled in green marker. If form holds, expect coach Gregg Marshall to write those words on the board near the end of his talk before Thursday’s NCAA Tournament game against Pittsburgh at EnergySolutions Arena.
“Play Angry” grew into something of a team motto after former Shocker greats Xavier McDaniel and Antoine Carr addressed the team using those words, and more colorful ones, before a January game.
“Play like you’ve got something to prove,” guard Demetric Williams said. “Focus on defense and play with a lot of aggressiveness.”
That angry style is mostly about defense, which is mostly what the Shockers are about. They played angry at VCU and won a critical non-conference game 53-51. They played angry against Iowa and held the Hawkeyes to four second-half baskets. They played angry against Illinois State in St. Louis and out-rebounded the Redbirds 48-31 and held them to 26.3-percent shooting.
Playing angry works for the ninth-seeded Shockers (26-8).
“It means play with a chip on your shoulder,” guard Ron Baker said. “If there’s a loose ball, you’re supposed to dive on it. You want to be the big dog on the block every time you step on the court.”
If Wichita State plays angry, so does eighth-seeded Pittsburgh (24-8). And the Panthers do it with athletes who are an inch or three taller than the Shockers and 10 or 20 pounds heavier. Both teams rely on man-to-man defense. Both teams pride themselves on rebounding and led their conferences in rebound margin.
“If it’s a mirror image, I hope we stack up physically,” Marshall said.
WSU can bully some teams with its strength and athletic ability. It can bully others with its depth — 10 Shockers average 10 or more minutes. Pitt can do the same thing with its Big East athletes — 10 players average 11 or more minutes.
“It’s not anything that scares you, but you’ve obviously got to be prepared to be in a war,” guard Fred VanVleet said.
The Panthers also see the similarities.
“We like to bang, rebound and they’re same way, play hard just like us,” Pitt forward Dante Taylor said. “We’ve just got to focus on blocking them out and rebounding, because their big guys are relentless on the offensive glass.”
Pitt defeated WSU 68-55 in 2009 in Kansas City, Mo. The game left a mark in the memory banks, even though few current players participated. WSU out-rebounded the Panthers 30-28, but committed 24 turnovers in a game it played without starting point guard Clevin Hannah. Williams is the only Shocker who remains from the game. Pitt senior Tray Woodall scored 19 points and Taylor and Lamar Patterson came off the bench.
“I noticed them playing hard for 40 minutes, and you don’t see a lot of teams that do that,” Woodall said. “It reminded us of our style of play in the Big East.”
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon will use “relentless” on the scouting report to describe WSU forward Carl Hall, who averages 12.8 points and 7.2 rebounds. His 90 offensive rebounds lead the Shockers and are sometimes his best source of scoring.
“Very physical and likes contact,” Dixon said. “The offensive glass is where he seems to get his points, his putbacks and get to the free-throw line.”