Feel bad for Wichita State, which couldn’t handle Virginia Commonwealth’s defense and scored a season-low 59 points in Thursday’s NCAA Tournament loss. Think how Tom Crean feels, and you might get a sense for how VCU made its Final Four run last season.
The Rams, 62-59 winners over WSU, are tough to prepare for in a practice gym. It took the Shockers, a veteran team with good ballhandlers, more than 30 minutes to hurt VCU enough that it backed off its pressure some. Crean’s Indiana team had one day to prepare for VCU’s ferocity and variety of pressure strategies before today’s third-round game at the Rose Garden. It is a tournament nightmare facing VCU.
The fifth-seeded Shockers got three days to prepare, plus they played VCU a year ago in the regular season. It didn’t seem to help. VCU’s defense frazzled the Shockers. Playing in the Missouri Valley Conference can steel a team to face physical half-court defenses and motion offenses. It isn’t much help against full-court presses with long-armed defenders.
“You’ve seen the Valley,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “No one presses in the Valley. We press more than anyone else. You don’t get a dose of that at all.”
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Marshall said WSU worked with six defenders to imitate the Rams. Going against the scout team in an empty gym isn’t perfect prep for the Rams in the NCAA Tournament.
“We tried to replicate it the last three days,” Marshall said. “We got better at it. I was pleased with only 12 turnovers.”
The Shockers did their job by beating the pressure most times. Once over half-court, however, things went badly. The Shockers missed open shots. VCU didn’t surrender many of those, and its aggressive defenders protected the rim with zeal. The 12th-seeded Rams altered many shots in the lane that other teams can’t bother. WSU missed 24 of 35 shots in the first half, 8 of 9 from three-point range.
“Once we got into the halfcourt, especially in the first half, we had great looks,” Marshall said. “Ben (Smith) had a wide-open three early and a couple of foul-line jumpers. David Kyles had an open look. We just did not make shots in the first half, whether that’s their defense or our jitters or an inability to knock down shots.”
WSU trailed by as many as 13 in the second half. A run midway through the half, when the Shockers broke the press and scored at times, caused VCU to rachet back its pressure for a time.
“The second half, we handled it pretty well, and had a chance to win the game,” WSU guard Joe Ragland said.
WSU (27-6) lost after a final possession went awry against VCU’s defense and center Garrett Stutz missed a last-second three. In four of WSU’s losses, it took a shot to win or tie in the final 10 seconds. Marshall had his five seniors — Stutz, Smith, Ragland, Kyles and Toure Murry on the floor. Their careers ended when the shot bounced away.
“This is their last chance to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Marshall said. “It ends abruptly. Our seniors, they’re wearing the uniform for the last time, so it’s more about them.”
WSU will look dramatically different next season. Murry, Kyles and Stutz, Shockers for four seasons, won 98 games, more than any other senior class. Smith and Ragland won 56, most among WSU two-season players. Murry, Kyles and Stutz joined the program on faith during Marshall’s first season. As sophomores, WSU flirted with an NCAA berth and finished second in the MVC. As juniors, they won the NIT. As seniors, they accomplished their goal of making the NCAA Tournament.
Each of them played important, yet different, roles. Murry started as a freshman, morphing from an outside shooter to a driver and passer and one of the MVC’s best defenders. Stutz produced an outstanding senior season and gave WSU an inside scorer to build its offense on. Kyles leaves WSU as one of its best outside shooters. Ragland earned All-MVC honors after a superb offensive season. Smith’s addition to the starting lineup in February lifted WSU to a new level due to his outside shooting and he earned a spot on the MVC’s All-Defensive team.
“To lose a close game like that, you know you should have won, to come up on the short end, it’s tough,” Murry said. “The season goes by quick. Just like that, four years go by and my career is over.”
Marshall likes to play his bench and that should help the transition from his early recruiting efforts to the future. Junior forward Carl Hall, who started 19 games and was named MVC Newcomer of the Year, is the top returning big man. He stood up well against VCU, with 10 points and eight rebounds. Junior guard Demetric Williams started 23 games and is WSU’s top perimeter defender. He made significant strides by reducing turnovers and mistakes. Freshmen Jake White and Tekele Cotton played on the edges of the rotation all season and both earned minutes at meaningful times. Junior center Ehimen Orukpe proved he can change games with shot-blocking and rebounding. He can be a bigger factor next season if he continues to improve his offense. Junior forward James Anacreon and freshman guard Evan Wessel played little this season.
Those returners will be joined by a five-man recruiting class that could grow during the spring signing period. Three guards sat out this season and are counted on next season — Oregon transfer Malcolm Armstead, Ohio transfer Joe Mitchell and freshman Ron Baker.
Right now, it’s hard to think about the future because of what just happened,” Cotton said. “But I love my teammates, the ones that are leaving and the ones that are staying.”