Wide and open
Wichita State practiced in the Georgia Dome on Thursday for 90 minutes and performed its 50-minute public practice on Friday afternoon.
We know the Shockers can dunk in the dome’s huge expanses. They showed that with the traditional fan-satisfying dunk-off to end Friday’s light workout. We don’t know how the Shockers will shoot from 10 feet or 20 feet in this setting.
Popular opinion is that the domes create bad shooting because of the empty space behind the baskets, so different from the arenas college teams play in. Statistical looks at the issue are less certain location causes poor shooting.
The Shockers, who will get another chance to acclimate before Saturday’s game, don’t sound concerned.
“It’s just another gym with 10-foot goals,” guard Ron Baker said. “It’s a little different from back home, of course. We’ll get some shots up and get used to it.”
None of the Shockers have played in a similar setting in college. WSU played at Syracuse’s Carrier Dome in 2007, a smaller setup than the one used in the 74,000-seat Georgia Dome. In 1981, WSU played Kansas and LSU in the Superdome in New Orleans. Since then, no other arena compares for spaciousness.
“We’ve been to some big arenas, but none this big,” center Carl Hall said. “You can tell it’s a football (stadium). We need to get used to the back splash, the whole scene behind the goal. (Thursday), we didn’t shoot it as well, I guess because we were still looking up at the lights and excited.”
WSU play its regional final in Staples Center in Los Angeles, an NBA arena. Louisville played in 35,000-seat Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Two jobs for WSU
WSU’s response to Louisville’s presses will go a long way toward determining its offensive effectiveness. The Shockers first must break the press. Then they need to score quickly, or execute against Louisville’s half-court defenses.
“What you’ve got to do is not turn the ball over,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “If we’re turning the ball over and giving them transition opportunities, then we’re not doing what we’re trying to do.”
The Shockers faced a disruptive defense in November when they played at VCU. They committed 13 turnovers and kept the Rams from going crazy on fastbreaks in a 53-51 victory.
“We haven’t looked at VCU film, but VCU’s style of play is very similar to Louisville’s,” Baker said. “That game at the beginning of the year is something we have talked about and looked back on. It’s definitely been a good preparation game for us.”
Louisville will try to force the ball into danger zones and try to make shaky decision-makers handle the ball against the press.
“When you catch it in the corners, they’re going to try and trap immediately,” WSU guard Malcolm Armstead said. “It’s just a matter of staying away from the corners. We just have to be able to be composed and try to eliminate the atomic bombs, as we call them, to fuel their transition game.”
Men of steal
Louisville’s defensive credentials carried it to a 14-game win streak and the Final Four.
It forces an average of 18.6 turnovers and ranks second nationally in turnover margin (plus-6.1) and steals (10.9). Possession-based statistics (from bbstate.com) rank the Cardinals second nationally by allowing 0.84 points per possession. WSU is tied for 26th at 0.91.
Watch the whistles
With its top backup guard Kevin Ware out with the broken leg, Louisville will be looking to squeeze more minutes out of its talented backcourt, Russ Smith and Peyton Siva..
That could be tricky because Smith and Siva play at a high pace in a pressure defense and running offense.
Actually, Cardinal coach Rick Pitino’s first concern isn’t them wearing down.
“I’m more concerned about them getting into foul trouble because they always do,” he said. “The way we play means more fouls.”
Turning down the pressure isn’t the answer, Pitino said.
“I don’t think we can beat Wichita State if we back off,” he said.
Smith and Siva each have more than 80 steals and nearly 100 fouls this season.
No rookie jinx
Wichita State plays two freshmen who don’t play like freshmen. Baker and Fred VanVleet need to continue to display that unusual composure on Saturday to help handle Louisville’s pressure.
A year ago, VanVleet played in the Illinois Class 4A tournament for Rockford Auburn and placed third. Baker, who redshirted last season, won the Kansas Class 3A title for Scott City in 2011.
On Saturday, the stakes grow considerably larger.
“Those two guys are very mature for their age,” Hall said. “They’ve been playing basketball games like they’ve been here before.”
Baker is averaging 11 points in four NCAA games, with 10 assists and six turnovers. VanVleet, who hit crucial shots in wins over Gonzaga and Ohio State, averages 8.3 points while recording eight assists and two turnovers. Baker is 6 of 15 from three-point range. VanVleet is 4 of 9.
“Ron is really not a freshman to me,” WSU junior Cleanthony Early said. “He’s been around the system and he built his confidence. Fred . . .is wise beyond his years. He’s not a freshman, mentally, at all.”
Baker’s return to good health, after missing 21 games with a foot injury, gives WSU’s offense another weapon. He is important for more than his shooting ability.
“He has a high IQ,” Early said. “When he’s running through screens, he’s not lethargic. He’s running through them and he’s wanting the ball, regardless of if he’s getting it or not, and that’s what you need to take defenders away.”