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Shockers return to practice looking for ways to refine perfect start

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013, at 8:12 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013, at 8:40 p.m.

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For Wichita State, even perfect needs to be improved upon.

The 10th-ranked Shockers return to basketball practice on Thursday with a pre-Christmas resume any school would love: a 12-0 record, a top-10 ranking in both polls, No. 7 in the power rankings (RPI), three road victories and five over teams ranked in the RPI’s top 100.

“The body of work, as a whole, is pretty good,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said after Sunday’s 77-66 win over North Carolina Central.

And getting better in many ways. The Shockers are a better perfect in late December than they were in early November.

The Shockers, No. 10 in the Associated Press poll and No. 8 in the coaches poll, are a team with room to grow as players continue to settle into roles and inexperienced players grow more comfortable. While WSU isn’t as deep as recent Shocker teams, the Marshall trademarks of balanced scoring, defense and rebounding remain.

The development of transfer Darius Carter as a scoring threat in the lane is the best sign. After a slow start, Carter averaged 12.7 points and made 59.2 percent of his shots over the past four games. He made his first start and scored a season-high 19 points against North Carolina Central.

“It looks like we’ve got a post presence now,” Marshall said. “Darius is post presence we didn’t have early on. He’s a threat.”

Carter, a 6-foot-7 junior-college transfer, endured the normal adjustment period early in the season as he tried to figure out where he fit and how to score against bigger players. He too often shot fading away from the basket and rushed shots without letting the offense work for him. In recent games, he is taking the ball to the basket and drawing more fouls. His rebounding is on the upswing — he grabbed 14 against Tennessee.

“I’m just taking my time and taking good shots where I know I can either get fouled or get the basket,” he said.

WSU went 8-0 with guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet doing a lot of the scoring. Just as teams began to prepare defensively to limit those two, the big men took on more of the load. In the first eight games, Baker or VanVleet led the team in scoring six times. Baker scored 20-plus points in four straight games.

A month later, the Shockers no longer rely as heavily on those two for points. Senior forward Cleanthony Early is scoring more in the lane and drawing fouls at an impressive rate. He scored a season-high 26 points in a win at Alabama, making all 11 of his free throws. Senior post Chadrack Lufile has improved significantly from last season.

“To play inside-out is the best way to play,” VanVleet said. “It frees us up on the perimeter. I’d rather throw it in down low and let them go to work. It sucks the defense in and gets some easy shots.”

In November, Marshall questioned his team’s rebounding and wasn’t sure if the Shockers could match last season’s defensive intensity. Both areas are both solid assets entering Sunday’s non-conference finale against Davidson. The Shocker big men responded to challenges to improve their rebounding technique and outrebounded Saint Louis by 11, Oral Roberts by 17, Tennessee by five and Alabama by 12. Early leads the team with an average of 6.3 rebounds and grabbed a season-high 10 against North Carolina Central.

On defense, the Shockers are better at following their assignments and switching defenses as the new players learn. While North Carolina Central burned the Shockers for 51.1-percent shooting Sunday, they held BYU, Saint Louis, ORU and Tennessee under 40 percent. On Sunday, WSU built a 16-point halftime lead against North Carolina Central when a switch to a zone defense slowed Central’s drives to the basket.

“That’s what our zone can do, kind of throw teams off, especially in the heat of the moment,” Baker said. “When they need a basket, it’s nice to go to a back-up defense for us and throw the offensive off.”

The final six minutes of the first half of WSU’s 72-67 win at Alabama showed some of WSU’s increased versatility. Forward Tekele Cotton played point guard, leading a group of four reserves to keep the Shockers in the lead while three starters sat with foul trouble. Carter started the season as a power forward and is now comfortable with the duties of the center. Nick Wiggins, who played almost exclusively shooting guard last season, is more adept at the the small forward spot.

WSU’s final non-conference game is against a team with a deceptive record. Davidson (4-8) has losses to Duke, Virginia, Clemson and New Mexico and a win over a Charlotte team that defeated Kansas State and Michigan. On Saturday, Davidson took North Carolina to overtime before losing 97-85. Forward De’Mon Brooks, the Southern Conference preseason Player of the Year, scored 13 points in his first action after missing six games with a groin injury. The Wildcats made 14 of 24 free throws.

“They’re a totally different team with him,” Marshall said. “He’s back, and they had North Carolina (Saturday) if they made their free throws.”

Reach Paul Suellentrop at 316-269-6760 or psuellentrop@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @paulsuellentrop.

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