Key statistics: Wichita State takes away Evansville’s friendly bounces and soft rims at Ford Center.
On Sunday, WSU held Evansville to a season-low 34.8 percent shooting (16 of 46). Last season, it held the Aces to 30 percent shooting (15 of 50) and 41 points, both lows in the five-season history of Ford Center.
The Shockers, who entered the game averaging 2.9 blocks, blocked a season-high nine, its most since it blocked 11 against the Aces in 2014 in the MVC Tournament. Last season’s high of eight blocks? Also against the Aces.
Aces coach Marty Simmons has seen it before. WSU’s height and aggressive defense turns shots that are gimmes most nights into contested shots and the Aces didn’t react well.
“The game we played them here last year was pretty similar,” Simmons said. “We really got a lot of really good opportunities at the rim, especially early, and didn’t cash in. We got it down deep, but we didn’t finish plays.”
The Aces rushed shots, missed shots in the lane and flinched on their way to the basket, sometimes even when the Shockers weren’t in their way. Two — blocks by Zach Brown and Ron Baker on Egidijus Mockevicius — stood out as mind-wreckers. When your guy who shoots almost 70 percent from the field can’t score, nobody is safe.
“It’s hard to emulate these guys,” Simmons said. “They play at a high level with intensity. They speed you up.”
How the game turned: Evansville needed a big game from guard D.J. Balentine to stay close.
Zach Brown forced him into an awkward hook on Evansville’s first possession. He didn’t take another shot until 15:50 remained in the first half, missing a three over Markis McDuffie’s hand. Balentine missed all six of his shots in the first half and scored three points.
On his first possession of the second half, he dribbled away the shot clock before driving and Brown blocked his runner. He tracked it down, faked Brown for an open three and missed. ESPNU announcer Mark Adams said “They’re in his head right now.”
Balentine is 19 of 63 (30.2 percent) from the field in his last four games against the Shockers. The prospects of that changing in a potential third meeting are slim because WSU’s edges — height and depth — aren’t going away. The Shockers are so well-schooled against his curls and fakes that he is forced into tough shots almost every time.
“He’s a great scorer, no doubt,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “The athleticism and size that we were able to throw at him is a deterrent. He was not taking his normal rhythm shots. He was having to alter them many times.”
Balentine gave a toned-down version of a Tebow speech, saying what every competitor should say. The reality is the Shockers are perfectly equipped to make his life miserable. At Koch Arena, teammates such as Jaylon Brown and Adam Wing scored to take the burden off Balentine. At home, neither was much of a factor.
“I had a bad game,” Balentine said. “I’ll be a lot better from here on out. That won’t happen again. That is on me. I let them dictate what I wanted to do.”
Balentine made 5 of 13 shots in the second, when he played more point guard.
“Second half, I did more on-the-ball stuff, which got me open,” he said. “I missed so many shots I usually make.”
Records: WSU 16-5, 10-0 MVC; UE 18-5, 7-3
Stat that might surprise you: WSU committed 15 turnovers, 10 in the first half. The Aces aren’t a pressing team, yet they managed to rattle the Shockers a bit in the second half and force a few turnovers.
The Shockers committed 15 or more turnovers for the fourth time this season.
Stat that shouldn’t surprise you: The Aces finished with a season-low eight assists, four below its previous low. Evansville entered Sunday averaging 19.3 assists a game, third nationally. It assists on 70 percent of its baskets.
The Shockers so completely disrupted the Aces, Blake Simmons was left to go one-on-one and shoot and off-balance runner against Baker early in the second half. There can’t be a clearer sign that the Aces were out of answers on offense.
Freshman watch: Seven rebounds for McDuffie. The Shockers won a lot of loose-ball battles and McDuffie continues to prove his willingness to do the dirty work.
Why they’re All-Americans: WSU led 12-10 when Baker refused to let Evansville execute a simple handoff, knocking the ball of Brown’s leg and out of bound.
The Shockers want 35 deflections a game and they had 20 at halftime.
“Baker was only allowed to play 21 minutes with his fouls,” Marshall said. “He was good when he was in there. He was really defending.”
VanVleet scored a career-high 32 points.
Two kinds of contributions. Both important to the story of Sunday’s game.
Rotation watch: WSU’s depth paid off big. Conner Frankamp, Anton Grady and McDuffie all played 20-plus minutes and all made contributions. Rashard Kelly played 17.
Grady grabbed eight rebounds and blocked a season-high four shots. Shaq Morris’ foul trouble proved to be no trouble because of Grady’s effort.
“That was a lot of fouls, man,” Marshall said. “We got through it. That’s the advantage of having depth, and quality depth.”
▪ Evansville’s Jaylon Brown scored 18 points in WSU’s 67-64 win at Koch Arena and played stout defense on VanVleet. The Shockers took note and played him differently in the rematch. He scored seven points and committed five turnovers.
“He had a great game at our place … mostly my fault, because I told Fred ‘You’ve got to help more, help more, help more,’” Marshall said.
On Sunday, VanVleet locked in on Jaylon Brown, because Zach Brown and McDuffie, and WSU’s big men, mucked it up for Balentine and didn’t require VanVleet’s help.
“Last time, Jaylon Brown had a big-time game and Adam Wing had a good game,” VanVleet said. “Me and Evan (Wessel) really took that to heart to try to contain our guys.”
Jaylon Brown might well be the MVC’s most improved player. But it’s rare for an opponent to get into VanVleet two games in a row.
“I take the blame for all the points he scored (at WSU),” VanVleet said. “I wasn’t happy with my defensive performance. I had 16 (points) and nine (assists) the last time we played them and it felt like I played one of my worst games of the year, just because of the amount of buckets that guys were getting on me.”
▪ WSU is Novak Djokovic. Evansville is Andy Murray, like Northern Iowa last season. Good (great in the case of 2015 UNI) teams with the misfortune to play in an era when the Shockers are dominant.
It’s a tough thing to pack 10,034 fans into Ford Center and send them home disappointed. The good news is that 10,034 fans cared enough to show up, which isn’t the case in every city.
“We understand this is a hyped-up game,” Balentine said. “The crowd was nice. We appreciate it. Personally, I feel like that should be every game.”
▪ I see Evansville as the Valley’s second-best team. The Aces are done with WSU and get SIU and Illinois State at home. Wednesday’s game at UNI is a tough one, but after that the Aces travel to Loyola, Drake and Bradley.
SIU must travel to WSU, Indiana State, Evansville and Illinois State.
After the Shockers defeated SIU 83-58 on Jan. 9, I walked out of SIU Arena thinking the Salukis were a much-improved team, but one with important deficiencies in the front-court. I feel differently about Evansville, which is a good team beaten down by a great one on Sunday.
My worry about the Aces is depth. Its top six are better than any MVC team outside the Shockers. After that, the drop is steep.
If they don’t wear down, I expect them to finish strong and be a solid representative in the NIT. As WSU proved in 2011, the NIT can be a great thing if approached properly. The Aces haven’t been to the NIT since 1994, so that is a good goal if the MVC Tournament doesn’t produce an automatic bid.
Around the Valley
Northern Iowa dumped Southern Illinois 67-58 to give the Shockers a three-game MVC lead with eight to play. UNI’s Bennett Koch scored a career-high 22 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. The Panthers can cause problems in the second half if Koch can avoid foul trouble and provide consistent inside scoring.
Indiana State’s 104-96 loss at eighth-place Loyola on Saturday also shook up the standings. The Sycamores had a chance to move into a tie for second and a favorable February schedule. Instead, they’re tied for fourth, one game ahead of sixth-place Missouri State.
Next up: vs. Southern Illinois, 8 p.m. Wednesday (Cox Kansas)
SIU has lost two in a row and its nation’s best eight-game road win streak ended.
That puts the spotlight squarely on Marshall, who can pass Ralph Miller atop WSU’s career wins list, with No. 221. And on WSU’s nation’s best 42-game home win streak.