SALT LAKE CITY — Wichita State possesses a lot of specialists on offense. What it lacks are generalists, players who perform many functions to make scoring easier.
Outside of point guard Malcolm Armstead, redshirt freshman Ron Baker might be WSU’s most well-rounded offensive player. His return from an injury that cost him 21 games gives the offense a boost.
Baker, a 6-foot-3 guard, can play the point or on the wing and his grasp of the offense helps everyone. He is a good passer, moves confidently without the ball and teams must guard him behind the three-point line.
“If you know three positions in the offense, it helps you realize what’s the best way to execute,” he said. “If Malcolm’s at the (point) and I’m at (shooting guard), what can I do to help him execute the play better? In motion (offense), I’m just kind of freelancing and we’re on our own. I’m just always trying to get someone a shot. Sometimes when you set a good screen, you might be open on the reversal.”
Baker returned March 8 in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament and played in all three games. He scored 15 points against Missouri State and seven each against Illinois State and Creighton. He made 10 of 20 shots with three assists and four turnovers.
Another week-plus of practices helped his conditioning after a layoff that began in mid-December.
“I’m about back to normal,” he said. “I feel like I’ve gotten a little quicker over the past two weeks. I was a little slow on my feet during the (conference tournament). I feel more confident in my defense now that I can move side to side.”
Find the range — Chaska (Minn.) High coach Dana Kallman talked to Shocker sophomore Jake White after one of the low points of the season, a 57-52 loss at Northern Iowa on Feb. 2 in which White played seven minutes and missed both his shots.
Even then, Kallman figured White would battle his way out of a shooting slump.
“I had supreme confidence,” Kallman said. “There’s no doubt in my mind he can play at that level. He’s a hard worker. He’s a complete team guy. He’s got all that going for him.”
White’s turnaround started soon after. Late in the UNI game, he missed a three-pointer. He didn’t take another one for more than a month, until the MVC Tournament. By concentrating on short jumpers and shots in the lane, White revived his confidence. He made 14 of 18 shots in the final eight regular-season games. He started the tournament strong, scoring nine points and making 4 of 8 shots against Missouri State before shooting poorly in the final two games.
“That helps, when I started focusing more on my mid-range game,” he said. “I always relied too much on the three-point shot.”
Even when White didn’t score, his effort on the boards stayed strong. He grabbed 17 rebounds in the three tournament games. Kallman saw that knack for finding the ball when White started coming to his camps as a sixth-grader.
“He’s not the quickest, but he anticipates and he knows where the rebounds are going to end up,” Kallman said. “There’s some guys you just don’t have to teach things to, basketball-IQ stuff. He’s got it.”
Give me air — The Shockers arrived in Utah on Tuesday to practice and worked out again Wednesday morning before a public shootaround. They did that in order to give the players as much time as possible to get used to the elevation in Salt Lake City — 4,226 feet above sea level.
“That was a good thing coming in (Tuesday) to get us familiar with it,” guard Demetric Williams said. “It was better (Wednesday).”
The Shockers experienced the thin, dry air of the Rocky Mountains during a December win at Air Force in Colorado Springs (6,035 feet).
“It’s nothing compared to what it was in Air Force,” Baker said. “Definitely less of a factor.”
Two teams, two states — WSU athletic director Eric Sexton is enjoying the perks and the challenges of being a two-tournament boss.
His men’s basketball team is in Utah. His women’s basketball team, making its first NCAA appearance, plays Texas A&M on Saturday in College Station, Texas. That makes for flexible travel plans.
“Crazy,” he said. “It will be hard to be in two places at one time.”
Sexton plans on a weekend stay in Salt Lake City. Senior associate athletic director Becky Endicott is with the women’s team.
“I will figure out a way to support both of them,” he said. “First time ever — it is an historic moment, and we all ought to be a part of that.”
Zag out front — John Stockton is revered in two places — Gonzaga and Salt Lake City. He played at Gonzaga and then 19 seasons for the Utah Jazz. A statue of the NBA’s career assists leader (15,806) is outside EnergySolutions Arena.
David Stockton, one of three sons, is a junior guard for the Zags.
“(John) is the best point guard of all time,” Gonzaga guard Kevin Pangos said. “I go against David every day in practice and I can see so many of the things he learned from his dad.”
John Stockton is famously reserved in public. Around the Zags, he has plenty to say.
“He’s one of those guys where, if you talk to him for five minutes you will learn something,” center Kelly Olynyk said. “He’s one of those guys that you want to listen to him like he’s going to give you the secret of life because he is a wealth of knowledge.”
Foreign flavor — There are 15 players from outside the United States playing among the eight teams in Salt Lake City this weekend. Most have one common trait — they’re tall.
The average height of the 15 players is 6-foot-8. Only Hugh Greenwood, a 6-3 sophomore guard from Australia playing for New Mexico, doesn’t at least approach that height. Four, including Wichita State’s Ehimen Orukpe and Pittsburgh’s Steven Adams, are 7-foot or taller.
According to Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, recruiting internationally has become important because the game is growing globally, with height-advantaged players being more prone to take up basketball.
"When you’re in Africa or Nigeria, they’re pushing the big kids to play basketball where they weren’t pushing them earlier,” he said. “There’s probably other reasons as well, but I think that’s important. The biggest guys in the world play basketball now. They didn’t play it before (and) they know the opportunity that comes with that."
The best of the group is Olynyk, a 7-foot National Player of the Year candidate from British Columbia.
Coach Mark Few didn’t have to travel far from Spokane, Wash., to recruit Olynyk, but he has competition as other coaches are venturing north to find players. There are approximately 30 Canadian players in the tournament, including Olynyk and Zags teammate Kevin Pangos. WSU has Canadians Chadrack Lufile and Nick Wiggins.
"Basketball (in Canada) is really kind of on the rise and it’s really on the come-up, so that’s huge as well," Olynyk said. "There are guys who are focusing on being in the NBA now and trying to get to that next level, which is huge. I think that’s where Canada is headed and where it needs to go."
Eight? Really? — Wichita State may not be the only team taking on the "play angry" mantra on Thursday. Pittsburgh is motivated by missing the NCAA Tournament last year for the first time since 2001 and by earning a lower seed that expected.
The Panthers finished 5-13 in Big East play but ended on a positive-but-tempered note by winning the CBI, one notch below the NIT in prestige among postseason tournaments.
"It was a long time ago," Dixon said. "We haven’t focused too much on that. We have been there 11, 12 times over the years and they missed one year. We had a lot of injuries, fought through it, got better as the year went on but couldn’t recover. We carried on with how we finished the year with what we did this year."
Despite missing the tournament last year, Pitt is carrying a chip on its shoulder. After finishing 24-8 and with a 12-6 record in one of the country’s most difficult conferences, the Panthers feel as if they were undervalued as a No. 8 seed.
"I think everyone was shocked, honestly,” guard Tray Woodall said. “By the reaction when the seeding came, I felt like everybody reacted the same. We just didn’t think it would be us. But we’re happy to be here and being able to compete with the best teams in the tournament."