SAN DIEGO — There is one way for Wichita State basketball to stop the haunting from its loss to Connecticut.
Win tonight at No. 17 San Diego State, and the regrets from the Maui Invitational lessen significantly.
"We had that same opportunity with UConn, but we let it slip away," senior Graham Hatch said. "This is kind of a second chance for us to redeem ourselves."
To do that, the Shockers (5-1) will likely need to dial up their best defensive effort in the Mountain West-Missouri Valley Challenge. A lack of defense helped sink them in the 83-79 loss to UConn, and stopping people quickly grew into an issue. The Shockers let too many players dribble into the lane, where all sorts of breakdowns occur. Connecticut's Kemba Walker, with 29 points in the second half, put a spotlight on the problem.
"When we were in the Maui tournament, we let a couple players drive right by us," guard Demetric Williams said. "Coach (Gregg Marshall) is always stressing in practice, 'Don't need as much help.' If you're guarding your man at the top of the key, try to keep him from getting in the lane."
The Aztecs (7-0) present a number of defensive challenges. They are making 52.3 percent of their shots and 38.7 percent of their three-pointers. Forward Kawhi Leonard (6-foot-7, 225 pounds) averages 16.3 points and 10.1 rebounds.
"He could be an NBA lottery pick as a sophomore," WSU coach Gregg Marshall said.
Matthew Kamalsky of Draft Express writes: "Leonard's athleticism manifests itself most frequently on dribble drives to the mid-post and cuts to the basket. The California native likes to attack defenders off the dribble, using his solid first step and long strides to create short-range scoring opportunities."
The Aztecs shot better than 50 percent in their first six games before dropping to 45 percent in Wednesday's 69-55 win over Saint Mary's. They also out-rebounded the first six opponents before equaling Saint Mary's.
WSU practiced this week and played two games against lesser opponents. All week, the emphasis was on defense.
When the Shockers can't stop drivers, it creates many problems. Walker shot 15 free throws. Letting people in the lane also opens up three-point shooters. Defenders who have to help are also more likely to foul shooters or arrive a step late to get a hand up. To add to the problems, both Virginia and UMKC grabbed more offensive rebounds than the Shockers.
"We need to get better at it still, but we're capable of being a great defensive team," Hatch said.
San Diego State also plays good defense. It is holding opponents to 40.3-percent shooting. Saint Mary's shot 39.3 percent, although it made 9 of 18 three-pointers.
"It's hard to get a good look on them," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said. "You get a layup or good post move, and they block it. They are going to make you shoot a three over a hand or a tough two. I think to beat them you have to be even more patient."
The Shockers can't afford to be too patient regarding marquee victories. A win over Virginia might turn into good currency in March at NCAA Tournament selection time.
Future opponents LSU and Tulsa don't appear to be NCAA-caliber teams. A BracketBusters opponent might help, but results from the Missouri Valley Conference are not encouraging. WSU won't get many chances to play opponents as good as the Aztecs.