We won’t really know much about Wichita State’s offense until it faces one of those stay-in-front, hand-in-the-face, take-a-charge defenses in the Missouri Valley Conference. You know what Evansville or Northern Iowa can do to an offense that isn’t disciplined enough to run its plays against solid, physical defenders who refuse to let scorers do pretty things.
Well, the Nov. 13 game at Virginia Commonwealth will tell us something, but it’s too early in the season (and too talented an opponent) to give significant weight.
Offense is the issue for the Shockers, and any number of statistics tell the story.
WSU lost its top five scorers from last season. Those five seniors, three of whom played four seasons in coach Gregg Marshall’s system, formed the backbone of one of the nation’s most efficient offenses. They made a lot of shots — guard Joe Ragland shot 50.4 percent from three-point range. They ran the offense and rarely turned the ball over (12.2 a game despite averaging 77.1 points). They shot a school-record 74.8 percent from the foul line. Those attributes presented fans with an MVC title and a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Things won’t be so silky. It will take time for Marshall and the players to learn how this team needs to operate. It will take time for the newcomers to learn how to contribute when their shot isn’t falling.
“We may not figure it out by the first game,” Marshall said. “It may be Christmastime. It may be January when we hit our stride. I think this team will continue to get better if they continue to work hard, like they have, and be as coachable as they have.”
Carl Hall, its top returning scorer, averaged 8.4 points and rarely scored outside the lane. WSU made 230 three-pointers last season — four returners account for 33 of them. Several newcomers — none of whom know the frustration of running into former Evansville center Pieter von Tongeren for a charging foul — must contribute.
The Shockers, not surprisingly, aren’t too concerned. They’re used to winning around Koch Arena and see no reason why things should change.
Hall gets a chance to show he can be the focal point of the offense in a different way than center Garrett Stutz did last season. Stutz did most of his damage with his back to the basket, scoring over defenders and drawing fouls. Hall is smaller, more powerful and quicker. He is ready to show off an improved mid-range jump shot and moves polished against teammate Ehimen Orukpe, a 7-foot, shot-blocking machine.
“If I can score on Ehimen, I know I can get it on men my size,” Hall said.
Hall’s job is to command a double team from defenses, as Stutz normally did. WSU’s offense hit a high gear last season when Hall volunteered to go to the bench and Ben Smith, a floor-spacing shooter, replaced him in the lineup. With most of WSU’s shooters departed, other must step up to give Hall and Orukpe room to operate in the lane.
Senior guard Demetric Williams made 19 of 54 threes (35.2 percent) last season. Sophomore guard Tekele Cotton made 8 of 23 (34.8). Senior guard Malcolm Armstead made 51 of 156 (32.7 percent) in two seasons at Oregon before transferring to WSU. Newcomers Cleanthony Early and Nick Wiggins scored big in junior college. Sophomore forward Jake White is regarded as an excellent shooter, as is redshirt freshman guard Ron Baker.
“I’ve been in the gym the whole summer,” Williams said. “Malcolm can shoot the ball. Ron can shoot the ball. We’ve got shooters on this team and we’ve got people working hard to knock down open shots.”
They looked good in WSU’s public scrimmage in late October, when the teams combined to make 11 of 23 threes. Making those shots in front of 16,000 fans in Omaha is another matter.
“They’ll have to respect us night in and night out,” Armstead said. “It’s just a matter of us doing what it is that we need to do.”
Defense and rebounding are normally givens for Marshall teams. The Shockers out-rebounded 135 of their 170 opponents in his five seasons and ranked No. 15 nationally in rebound margin (plus-6.5) last season. WSU earned the MVC’s award as its top defensive team the past two seasons. WSU’s returners did a lot of the tough stuff last season and know how to influence a game with defense.
Williams, an excellent on-the-ball defender, should make a push for the MVC’s All-Defense team. Hall is a ferocious rebounder and Orukpe blocked 30 shots while averaging a mere 7.8 minutes. Cotton’s defensive-back body and athletic ability gives him potential to be a lockdown defender. Marshall loves sophomore guard Evan Wessel’s willingness to dive on the floor for loose balls. Add Armstead, who set Oregon’s season record for steals with 65, and the Shockers should establish a defensive identity.
That identity may need to carry the Shockers through rough times with the offense.
“All the good teams, defense takes care of the offense and gets them out in transition to make plays,” Armstead said.
Talent shouldn’t be a problem. Marshall will look down his bench at plenty of players with the skills to help him win. Williams and Armstead give him two experienced point guards who can push the ball and play tough defense. Freshman guard Fred VanVleet, slowed by a sprained ankle, should help when healthy. Hall, Orukpe and transfer Chadrack Lufile supply plenty of bulk. White can spread the floor with his shooting without sacrificing rebounding. Early offers a rare blend of size and scoring ability in the front court. Cotton, in limited minutes as a freshman, showed a taste for defense and made half his shots.
Figuring out how to hand out minutes and manage personalities is the challenge. Last season, Hall gave up a starting spot for the good of the team. Williams learned to slow down and look for shots within the offense. Toure Murry passed off three-point shots to better shooters and helped score by getting to the line. The Shockers, no matter how talented, won’t win big unless this new group figures out how to make similar sacrifices.