LOS ANGELES — Wichita State wants to play big and win this game with rebounding and scoring in the lane. La Salle needs to play small and win this game by winning one-on-one matchups with its guards.
This reminds the Shockers of playing Southern Illinois, which can’t comfort fans. SIU defeated WSU 64-62 in February by using a guard-oriented lineup. The ninth-seeded Shockers (28-8) play 13th-seeded La Salle (24-9) on Thursday in the NCAA Tournament’s West Regional semifinal at Staples Center. A win puts them in Saturday’s regional final against either second-seeded Ohio State (28-7) or sixth-seeded Arizona (27-7).
WSU must defend an offense without much form or shape, one that gives freedom to experienced guards and lets them go. An injury to center Steve Zack forced La Salle coach John Giannini to go from three to four guards over the past month, with spectacular results. The Explorers are 3-0 in the NCAA Tournament after knocking off Boise State, Kansas State and Mississippi in five days. Zack, who missed six games with a sprained left foot, may return Thursday. That won’t change how the Explorers play.
“Our guys are hard to guard,” Giannini said. “I’d rather play against a team that has a bunch of plays versus a team that has a bunch of players. We’re a team that has a bunch of players, and they’re hard to guard when they play together.”
Against Boise State, La Salle shot a season-high 63.3 percent from the field. It built a 44-26 lead at halftime against Kansas State by making 18 of 31 shots and 6 of 11 three-pointers before winning 63-61. The Explorers beat Mississippi 76-74 on a last-second shot, capping a game in which it shot 49.1 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from three-point range.
“John has them really exuding confidence and belief in one another,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said.
Drive. Shoot. Pass. Repeat. The Explorers will attempt to spread out WSU defenders and dribble past, where they can score in the lane. If another defender must leave his man to help, the dribbler passes for an open shot.
“They like to break you down one on one,” WSU guard Demetric Williams said. “Their guards are very talented one-on-one players. You’ve just got to be willing to stay focused and move your feet and stay in front. When a player comes to help, they tend to dump it off to their big and he’s a good finisher.”
It is simple basketball executed by senior guard Ramon Galloway, who averages 17.4 points, point guard Tyreek Duren, who burned Mississippi for 19 points and Tyrone Garland, who made the game-winner against the Rebels. Guard D.J. Peterson makes 40 percent of his three-pointers and Sam Mills is almost as accurate at 38.3 percent. Forward Jerrell Wright is the beneficiary of open shots when a defender leaves him to guard the rim. He is shooting 57.6 percent from the floor.
“They just drive it and kick and drive it and kick,” WSU center Ehimen Orukpe said.
In all, it’s a scary offense that will test WSU’s stamina and focus. Defenders can’t count on help from teammates. They must be ready to bend their knees and stay in front of dribblers for 40 minutes.
“We play freely and get each other open shots,” Galloway said. “We look to create plays for each other.”
WSU can match La Salle with guard depth, helped by the recent return of Ron Baker. It needs to play its big men and take advantage of La Salle’s rebounding weakness. Opponents have outscored the Explorers 48-25 on second-chance points in the NCAAs and out-rebounded them in each game.
“We’ve got to man up and will ourselves to find a way, because we’re playing against bigger and more physical teams,” Galloway said.
The Shockers are counting on that edge defining the game. They can score in the lane against a team that will often play four players smaller than 6-foot-5. They can get second shots and keep the Explorers on defense. If the Shockers shoot from the outside too much, they play to La Salle’s strengths.
“We’ve got to take advantage of controlling the glass, rebounding, using our size,” Orukpe said. “That’s the main advantage we have.”
The Shockers won the rebounding battle against 32 teams this season and rank seventh nationally in rebound margin at plus-7.9. In their NCAA opener, they out-rebounded Pittsburgh, also one of the nation’s top rebounding teams, 37-32.
“Rebounding could be the biggest issue in the game,” Giannini said. “It’s a strength for them and a weakness for us.”