ATLANTA — Wichita State missed 37 shots and scored 53 points on the night it changed attitudes about the rest of the season. The Shockers proved defense could rule, in case anybody doubted.
The Shockers defeated VCU 53-51 on Nov. 13 in Richmond, Va. With four new starters and five players in their first road game in a WSU uniform, they survived a miserable shooting night. Guard Malcolm Armstead made a jumper with four seconds remaining for the final margin and VCU’s Juvonte Reddic missed two foul shots with one second remaining.
“VCU was the first time we realized we could be pretty good,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “I told my wife, going into that game, with the young team that we had and the inexperience across the board, I would rather go and get a root canal.”
WSU, picked fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference preseason poll, opened with a 71-57 win over North Carolina-Central. Then it traveled to Richmond as an unknown nationally, after losing five seniors from the 2012 team. It emerged as a team with an eye-catching road win, one that helped earn the Shockers an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. VCU ended the regular season with an RPI ranked No. 24, giving WSU its best win, according to the power rankings, all season. That win returned WSU to the conversation for national rankings and the NCAA Tournament.
“VCU was looked at as a high-caliber mid-major team,” senior Demetric Williams said. “That’s where our eyes were at. It let everybody know that this year’s team was very serious.”
VCU gave Marshall good reason to worry. The Shockers avenged a 2012 loss in the NCAA Tournament and a 2011 loss at Koch Arena that helped VCU on its run to the Final Four. Two games into the season, WSU coaches could tell players that demands in practice — rebounding drills, bending knees on defense, taking charges — paid off with a big win.
“It really helped our staff be able to say, ‘Hey, I know there’s days you don’t want to hear this and there’s days you don’t like doing this, but this is the reason to play at a high level,’ ” associate head coach Chris Jans said. “For us to do that, we’ve got to go pretty hard on a daily basis. It gave your coaching staff some credence with the players.”
If any of WSU’s newcomers doubted the potential, beating the Rams reinforced what coaches and seniors told them over the summer. All the hard work was necessary to play with teams such as VCU.
“Through the summer workouts, everybody felt pretty confident in the team and knew the program and knew our expectations,” Williams said. “But most definitely, winning that (VCU) game definitely shined a light on ‘Man, what I’m thinking is actually true.’ ”
WSU handled VCU’s pressure defense. It committed 13 turnovers and kept the Rams from feasting on dunks and layups.
Guard Malcolm Armstead, starting his second game as a Shocker, handed out six assists with three turnovers. Freshman Ron Baker played 26 minutes and didn’t commit a turnover while recording three assists. Sophomore Evan Wessel, in his first start, scored 11 points in 23 minutes. Williams came off the bench to play 17 minutes with two assists and one turnover.
That composure against full-court pressure will be needed again against Louisville on Saturday.
“We were actually scoring against the (VCU) press,” Marshall said. “Malcolm Armstead was tremendous.”
Armstead and Williams played tenacious defense early in the game to show the Rams the new-look Shockers could match their “Havoc” defense. Armstead made three steals in the first half. Baker and guard Fred VanVleet pitched in.
“We learned how tough we were and how we could deal with the press,” VanVleet said. “Malcolm handled the pressure, almost single-handedly broke the press. He was so poised and so strong.”
With that lead, the Shockers never looked rattled on the road. They shot 35.1 percent and missed 16 of 19 three-pointers. Those offensive struggles didn’t affect their defense. WSU ignored the missed shots, the crowd and the pressure defense.
“I felt like everybody seemed experienced,” Baker said after the game. “I don’t have any late-game experience, but it really felt like everybody was in that mode.”
Five months later, the Shockers will need that same calm and composure in the Final Four.