Wichita State is 9-0, ranked eighth in the coaches poll, and things couldn’t be better in Koch Arena.
Well, several items could use an upgrade. That’s good news. WSU is winning at home, winning on the road — but there is room for improvement.
The post players are inconsistent and the pressure is on with games against two SEC opponents on deck. Previously reliable shooters are slumping. And there’s the fact that rules require the Shockers to play 20 minutes before getting to the second half.
The Shockers, after defeating Oral Roberts 71-58 on Saturday, endure final exams this week before playing Tennessee (6-2) on Saturday at Intrust Bank Arena. A trip to Alabama (4-4) follows on Dec. 17.
The play of big men Chadrack Lufile, Kadeem Coleby and Darius Carter against ORU encouraged WSU coach Gregg Marshall. Lufile scored a career-high 14 points, backing up the 12 he scored against Saint Louis. Darius Carter showed promised offensive production while scoring a season-high 12 points and Coleby grabbed four offensive rebounds in 15 minutes.
Lufile, the only member of the trio to play last season, is emerging as the most consistent option and the best rebounder. The Shockers, however, will need Coleby and Carter to match up with Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon. Stokes, a 6-foot-8, 260-pound forward, averages 14.9 points and 10 rebounds. Maymon, equally large, averages 10 points and 7.6 rebounds.
Alabama’s big men aren’t as accomplished, but their size will also present problems. WSU’s big men can’t rely on a physical advantage against the Volunteers and Crimson Tide.
“That’s a big key for us,” Marshall said. “We’re going to play against SEC competition. We’re not going to punk these guys. These are big, strong lads that we’re going to have to go against. (WSU’s posts) will have to play well, not just push somebody around.”
While WSU’s offense is one of the nation’s best (averaging 1.12 points per possession to rank No. 26 by Ken Pomeroy’s statistic for offensive efficiency), its outside shooting isn’t as dangerous as expected. Forward Cleanthony Early may be on the right track after making 5 of 9 threes in his past two games.
Nick Wiggins and Evan Wessel, however, continue to misfire. Wiggins, who made 41.9 percent of his threes last season, is 5 of 24 this season. Wessel, who made 11 of 24 in an injury-shortened 2012-13, is 0 for 8.
As a team, WSU is shooting 32.7 percent from three-point range.
“It’s not really frustrating; we’re still winning games,” Wiggins said. “My teammates keep feeding me confidence and telling me to keep shooting.”
Both Wiggins and Wessel say the cure is more time in the gym.
“I know shots aren’t falling and I’ve just got to continue to work,” Wessel said. “My main role is to go in and play great defense, not turn the ball over. I’ve got to knock down shots. I take that personally and I’ve got to work better.”
WSU trailed ORU 30-22 after missing 21 of 27 shots in the first half. The Shockers also trailed William & Mary and Tennessee State at home at halftime before winning comfortably.
“I think teams come out with a lot of energy and the X on our back is really big,” Early said. “They use that to the best of their ability and they kind of punch us in the face.”
The Shockers take comfort in the fact they are wearing opponents out in the second half after the emotion and the buzz of playing a nationally-ranked team fades. Against ORU, WSU opened the second half with a 14-2 run and never trailed after taking a 34-32 lead. It hit William & Mary with a 15-4 run to start the second half. Tennessee State hung around longer before WSU stretched its lead to 20 points.
Last season’s Final Four team showed more of a killer instinct in the first half, often building big leads against inferior opponents. However, it trailed four times at the half in non-conference games, including against Charleston Southern.
“It’s like the Super Bowl, when they kick it off everybody’s all jacked up,” guard Fred VanVleet said. “Who can play in the third and fourth quarter and make those big plays when you’re not relying solely on energy and hype?”
VanVleet saw a difference between the first half against ORU and previous slow starts. He took no issue with his team’s focus on Saturday. As the schedule peaks again, those first-half performances will take on more importance.
“We just missed a lot of shots,” he said. “It’s going to be a long game, and you’ve got to play 40 minutes. We haven’t been able to put together a good 40-minute game, and that’s what it’s going to take to beat a really good team.”