TULSA — I’m going to stop asking the Wichita State players and coaches why the Shockers have been such a dynamic second-half team so far this season because no one has an acceptable reason.
But the trend continued Wednesday night as WSU broke loose from a halftime tie and buried Tulsa with a 46-23 second-half surge in its 77-54 win.
The collective score in first halves against Western Kentucky, William & Mary, Tennessee State and Tulsa is knotted at 127. But Wichita State outscored those teams 180-109 in the second half of games.
Is Gregg Marshall the greatest conductor of a halftime speech in college basketball history? Is this team reading French poetry before the start of games? Are they all rabid fans of The Incredible Hulk, going all Bruce Banner in the opening 20 minutes?
This story line is played out, yet it keeps happening. Marshall has addressed questions about the disparity between his team in the first and second halves for a while now and he’s not coming up with an answer.
“We just played really well in the second half,” Marshall said. “And we didn’t play poorly in the first half.”
Maybe not poorly. But nothing like the second half, when WSU shot 53.6 percent from the field (as opposed to 35.7) and outrebounded Tulsa 22-12 (as opposed to 21-17).
Sophomore guards Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker kept the Shockers close in the first half, then took over in the second. They combined for 42 points, made 14 of 23 shots and if Baker hadn’t sat out 12 minutes in the first half with two fouls those numbers would be even more impressive.
Just when Tulsa started to believe an upset was possible, the Shockers hit the Hurricane with a 26-6 run over a nine-minute span starting with 10:28 to play.
It was ruthless. Cold. And debilitating to a Tulsa team that was at a loss to stop the Shockers.
VanVleet and Baker are almost always good together. But Wednesday they found another gear, especially in their chemistry. When they’re on the floor together, and in rhythm, there’s almost no way they can be stopped.
Both were more aggressive offensively than they’ve been all season. There were a couple of instances in the first half, even, when VanVleet tried to force the issue, to his detriment.
But he’s still young and he’s still learning, although the curve isn’t nearly as steep as it is for most sophomores.
And Baker made shots, including a dunk after a baseline drive. Yes, the ball rattled around the rim a bit, but it’s still a dunk. Just not a slam dunk.
“They’re both very cerebral, tough, deceptively athletic and they come from winning stock,” Marshall said of the guards he could be coaching for another 100 games if he’s lucky. “I’m not sure what other sports Fred participated in when he was in high school, but I’m sure whatever it was he was a winner. I want them on my team and I don’t care what they’re playing. If it’s golf, you get your two and I’ll take these guys.”
Not even VanVleet and Baker, however, can explain the disparities in the Shockers’ first and second halves.
Wichita State trailed Western Kentucky by a point at the half, then outscored the Hilltoppers 36-21.
The Shockers trailed William & Mary by a point also, but went on a 41-23 second-half tear.
WSU had just a two-point lead over Tennessee State at halftime, then won the second half by 15.
“It’s obviously something we want to change,” Van Vleet said before being corrected by Marshall.
The Shockers do not want to change what’s happening in the second half. It’s the first half that needs work.
“If it was up to me,” VanVleet said, “we’d play like we’re playing in the second half in the first half, too. But I think the preseason recognition we’ve gotten gives the teams we’re playing a shot of energy. Tulsa made some really good plays in the first half.
“But over a long period of time, our defense and rebounding is going to wear teams down.”
It was a blur to Manning, who watched his Tulsa team pull to within 51-48 with 10:43 left, then ran for cover.
“Wichita State’s a very talented team, well coached, they play hard and they execute their stuff,” Manning said. “We played a good half, we go in tied.…”
Then it happened. Like it’s happened to every team the Shockers have played.
“That’s their MO,” Manning said. “Everybody knows they’re a hard-nosed team, disciplined and they get after it. There was that stretch in the second half when they did things and we didn’t.”
That’s probably the best explanation yet. At least as good as any.
The Shockers do things in the second half and their opponents don’t.