At times, basketball is a solitary sport. Players shoot in empty gyms, work on dribbling and lift weights on their own.
When the lights are on and the arena is full of screaming fans, basketball is a team sport. That is where talking — to teammates, not yapping at opponents — is crucial. Coach Gregg Marshall characterizes this Wichita State team as one of the best communicating groups in his experiences. It is one of the many reasons WSU (20-5, 9-4 Missouri Valley Conference) is in second place in the conference entering tonight's game at Evansville (6-17, 0-13).
"A lot of guys have been with us now for one or two years, at least," Marshall said. "They see the benefit of it, especially on defense. When it's very loud in arenas they can communicate with one another without having anybody else to facilitate that."
Two seasons ago, after a loss at Evansville, the Shockers admitted they played better defense in front of their bench, where coaches could yell instructions. On the other end of the court, they played a step slower and fell prey to screens and movement because coaches weren't in their ear.
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Two seasons later, with more maturity and experience in Marshall's system, the Shockers handle those situations on their own.
"It's a lot better, because we have more guys that have been around," sophomore Toure Murry said. "We have like five coaches on the court helping one another. Coach can't be out there every second on the court."
Communication isn't a skill all players possess. They need to know each other. They need to know what to say.
"Usually you can' t jump into something like that," Murry said. "The person might be shy. You have to break out of your shell and do whatever to help your team."
Murry said it took him until midway through the MVC season as a freshman before he would "at least say something." Marshall convinced him he needed to talk for the Shockers to win.
"I've done better this year," Murry said. "In high school, I didn't really talk a lot. I didn't think it was that big of a deal. I know now that it helps the team."
Learning to talk with teammates starts long before the game. Marshall spends time encouraging and demanding communication in practice, so it becomes a habit to coach themselves.
"It starts off the court, as far as players getting along, being more like a family, instead of a team," junior Gabe Blair said. "Everybody's accountable for each other."
The Shockers do many drills in practice where talking is emphasized. In a recent practice, Marshall paused after full-court station passing — one of his favorites — to tell the players they did that drill better than any team under his instruction. The drill requires communication, speed and precision to complete in the time limit. In past seasons, it might take them two or three times to move the ball quickly enough to score enough baskets. This season, they usually do it once and move on.
"Last year we had to do drills over and over again," senior guard Clevin Hannah said. "That really helps us in games."
Players talk on defense to call out screens and directions. They talk on offense to set up plays, alert a teammate that a screen is coming or let a teammate know when and where they want the ball. Marshall often uses hand signals, meaning those signals must be recognized and relayed to teammates.
"We've got so many things we've got to know," Blair said. "It's hard for one person to know all 50 sets and all 20 defenses, and every different option on that. It's almost vital to make sure we're communicating. If we don't, there's going to be a whole bunch of things, as far as execution-wise, that might be missing."