Wichita State’s bench looked more like a typical Wichita State bench during Tuesday’s win at Alabama.
For much of the season, WSU rode its starters harder than in past seasons and their minutes climbed. The bench players stayed on the bench for longer than usual for coach Gregg Marshall. On Tuesday, the Shockers needed the bench to play big minutes and their performance kept the game close. No. 11 WSU (11-0) defeated Alabama 72-67 to extend its school-record unbeaten streak to start a season.
“A lot of guys stepped up,” WSU guard Fred VanVleet said. “We had unusual lineup that probably would never play together otherwise. They did a good job of just staying solid.”
VanVleet watched most of their hard work from the bench at the end of the first half. He picked up his second foul with 5:56 to play and joined starters Ron Baker and Cleanthony Early, both also with two fouls, on the bench for the rest of the half. WSU finished the half with starter Tekele Cotton and reserves Kadeem Coleby, Nick Wiggins, Evan Wessel and Darius Carter on the floor.
The situation tempted Marshall to break his rule of sitting players with two fouls. The Shockers led 22-19 when VanVleet went out and 26-21 with 5:13 to play. While Alabama took a 32-31 lead late in the half, WSU led 33-32 at halftime and the reserves did their job.
“We had some guys play double-digit minutes, in the first half alone, that hadn’t been playing very much,” Marshall said. “We were able to get to the half with a still manageable game.”
Carter, who played 26 minutes, led the reserves with nine points and a team-high seven rebounds. Wessel grabbed five rebounds, three on the offensive boards, and had a steal in 19 minutes. Nick Wiggins scored five points in 18 minutes and a goal-tending call robbed him of a layup.
“Guys on this team know their roles,” VanVleet said. “They won’t try to do too much. Evan had some real solid minutes. You won’t see it on the stat sheet, but he had some huge plays.”
Cotton, who usually plays on the wing, took on a larger burden with three starters sitting. He handled the ball against Alabama’s pressure and ran the offense. He also supplied much of the scoring late in the first half by making six free throws. With Baker bothered by a sprained left ankle, Cotton is practicing more at point guard.
“He can play multiple positions,” Marshall said. “He’s a winner, I don’t care what you’re playing.”
The Shockers did a lot of things right to win their third road game this season. Making 25 of 27 free throws might top the list. WSU entered the game making 73.4 percent from the line. Early made all 11 of his, seven in the second half, on his way to a game-high 26 points.
WSU often ends practice with Marshall selecting two or three player to make two free throws. The whole team runs if he misses.
“We shoot free throws all the time,” Early said. “I always want a wide-open shot and that’s a wide-open shot.”
WSU wraps up its non-conference schedule (no BracketBusters this season) against North Carolina Central on Sunday and Davidson on Dec. 29, both at Koch Arena. The Shockers will be favored in those games and all Missouri Valley Conference games, barring an unexpected development.
Starting the season 11-0 may be just that — a good start.
“I’m thinking about a lot more than that,” Carter said.