College basketball is largely a man-to-man defensive game and Missouri Valley Conference coaches are at the top of the list for disdaining zone defenses.
No. 6 Wichita State will, barring a surprise by Illinois State coach Dan Muller, face 40 minutes of 2-3 zone defense on Wednesday at Koch Arena. Muller reinvented his team in late November out of necessity. He starts four guards, presses and plays zone defense.
WSU coach Gregg Marshall searched his memory to find Drake in 2007-08 — coached by Keno Davis — as the last MVC team to play so much zone.
“Forty minutes with a press, it’s a pressure deal, back to a zone,” Marshall said. “And they’re very aggressive in that, as well.”
The Redbirds, already a team nobody could figure out after a tumultuous offseason, took another turn and it is working. Muller took his team to California in late November and went with a small lineup that plays zone and presses to create turnovers. They are 7-2 since a 1-4 start.
“We’re more relaxed because we’re more confident because we know what to do,” Muller said. “Guys are more confident in their roles right now, understanding what we want.”
The Redbirds (8-6, 1-1 MVC) moved guard Nick Zeisloft into the starting lineup, after the suspension of forward Michael Middlebrooks, to begin a tournament in California against Vermont. They led by 18 points before losing. Then they won four in a row, including a win over then-No. 25 Dayton. The small lineup is suited to play a packed-in zone defense that forces teams to shoot from the outside. Their quickness fuels a zone press designed to create turnovers.
In those nine games, the Redbirds are holding teams to 41.1-percent shooting while scoring 73.9 points, up from 68.3 in their first five games. They rank third in the MVC in shooting defense by holding teams to 42.8-percent shooting and fourth in steals with 7.1 a game.
WSU (15-0, 2-0) practices regularly against zones. They’ve played several teams with zone defenses this season, mostly as a changeup from man to man. The Redbirds don’t bother changing defenses.
“We’ve haven’t even watched any (man to man film) clips,” WSU guard Ron Baker said. “Zones are always trying to pack it in and keep the ball from inside of the paint. That’s our objective — move the ball, get a couple ball reversals. Get a paint touch. Open the zone a little bit and make them spin their heads a little bit.”
WSU is coming off one of its more complete defensive games in Sunday’s 67-53 win over Northern Iowa. The Shockers held UNI to 33.9-percent shooting. Marshall saw a defensive effort with all five players focused.
“To hold them to those type of shooting percentages was much better,” he said. “I saw everybody being a little more engaged. Everyone was engaged.”
Illinois State’s small lineup creates matchup problems for both teams. WSU forward Cleanthony Early will likely guard a quicker player. The Redbirds must contend with a size disadvantage, a major concern against the MVC’s top rebounding team.
“We certainly won’t win any jumping contests,” Muller said.
The Shockers trail the series 37-36 after winning nine of the past 10 meetings in a rivalry that has heated up in recent seasons. In 2012, the Redbirds upset the Shockers in the MVC Tournament semifinals.
That was a mere warmup to last season’s drama.
Early stunned the Redbirds with a three-pointer to cap an 8-0 run in the final 40 seconds of a 68-67 win at Redbird Arena. The game turned on a flagrant foul assessed to Illinois State’s Jackie Carmichael after he kicked WSU’s Tekele Cotton after grabbing a rebound. Officials allowed Early to shoot two free throws, as if administering a technical foul, by mistake and the MVC later disciplined them for their error. After the game, Muller confronted WSU coaches in the hallway outside the locker rooms, causing security to hustle into the area. Marshall declined to comment on that incident this week.
The teams met again in the tournament and WSU jumped to a 19-3 lead on its way to a 66-51 win in the semifinals.
Those matchups featured two MVC contenders. While the Shockers are a heavy favorite to win the conference title, the Redbirds are rebuilding with one of the most inexperienced rosters in the nation. Illinois State returned three players from last season, one a walk-on, all sophomores.