Key statistics: Wichita State guard Ron Baker is shooting with supreme confidence and accuracy. He made 9 of 11 shots (all three of his threes) and scored nine of WSU’s first 19 points to help the Shockers through Seton Hall’s early challenge. WSU recorded 10 steals and forced 18 turnovers, leading to easy baskets to the tune of 24 of their points.
Records: Seton Hall 7-1, WSU 6-1
How the game turned: WSU led 23-18 when Seton Hall’s turnovers became fatal. Tekele Cotton switched to cover Isaiah Whitehead and Whitehead lost control of his dribble trying to drive to the basket. Baker turned that into a layup to start an 11-0 run. Whitehead, guarded by Baker, followed that by missing a difficult turnaround in the post and Cotton swished a three-pointer for a 28-18 lead. Sterling Gibbs jumped in the air and made a careless pass that Fred VanVleet deflected and Cotton, using his great burst of speed, out-hustled Seton Hall’s Brandon Mobley to grab the ball out of the air and steam in for an uncontested dunk.
Stat that shouldn’t surprise you: Cotton spent much of the first half guarding Gibbs, who averages 17.3 points and had 40 against Illinois State. Gibbs didn’t score in the first half and managed three shots. He scored his first points when the Pirates trailed by 19 in the second half.
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Stat that might surprise you: Baker missed three of four free throws.
Next up: at Detroit, 11 a.m. Saturday (ESPNU)
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▪ Not to go all Bill Simmons, but a text conversation with one of my friends (unfortunately, he lacks a cool nickname) went like this: “Can you stop this narrative that WSU is such a deep team? Having players 5-10 of the same skill level doesn’t make you deep. Thanks.”
Fair point. The Shockers don’t enjoy a Ben Smith (2011 MVC Sixth Man Award), Carl Hall (who came off the bench the final 11 games in 2012) or Darius Carter (six starts last season), who is a mismatch capable of starting for many opponents.
The counter is that WSU does enjoy a bench stocked with legitimate NCAA Division I athletes who can help when put in the right positions and when their weaknesses are not overexposed. While it’s not the wave of production fans are used to, it’s better than looking at the bench and seeing players who don’t belong on the court due to size and athletic issues (see the bench in 2007-08 and walk-on Lance Harris guarding Osiris Eldridge for your comparison).
Rashard Kelly leads the bench in minutes because he owns one premium skill – rebounding. Ria’n Holland is shooting 40 percent from three-point range (6 of 15) and he’s shown a willingness to hustle, throw his body around in pursuit of rebounds and be a pest on defense. He isn’t much of a threat to drive. Shaq Morris is the biggest body who can get in the right places the most times and hold his position in the lane, while providing a bit of an offensive threat by shooting 58 percent from the field.
None of them are well-rounded players at this point, but that can change quickly. Kelly provided an important spark in the first half Tuesday, scoring back-to-back baskets when the Shockers had little going for them. He scored, with his left hand, on a nice post move to cut Seton Hall’s lead to 13-10. Then he out-hustled a bigger opponent for an offensive rebound and again scored with his left hand to cut the deficit to one point. He finished off a strong sequence by slipping into position to take a charge from Gibbs, drawing a second foul, and leading to a three by Baker.
WSU trailed the Pirates 11-6 on the backboards when Kelly entered with 13:35 to play in the first half. They ended the game with a 31-30 edge.
“That was a lift that we needed,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “He and Shaq really played well, especially (Kelly), gave us some energy, fluidity to our offense.”
Tuesday’s effort from the bench disappointed Marshall. That group will continue to test his patience with their ups and downs. Rauno Nurger scored 15 points in 15 minutes against Saint Louis and didn’t take a shot in five minutes Tuesday. Morris had more turnovers (two) than rebounds (zero) in 13 minutes.
The reserves need to be better. It’s worth remembering they’re being judged against a high standard. Toure Murry starred as a freshman because he had to play, he had to play through mistakes, and because he’s an NBA talent. Cleanthony Early starred as a junior transfer because he’s an NBA talent. Baker and VanVleet produced more than most freshmen because they’re special players.
Most newcomers take a slower path to production and that is where WSU is now.
“There’s a chasm (Tuesday) from what I expect and what they delivered,” Marshall said. “A canyon. The Grand Canyon. It’s not even close to what we want, or need. A lot them looked like the athleticism and the speed tonight was too much for them. We need to make some of these young guys veterans in a hurry.”
▪ Seton Hall was a late addition to the schedule and it worked out well for both teams. This is the kind of series both need to play. Seton Hall provided some challenges other nonconference opponents haven’t. Thanks to Memphis’ surprising flop, Utah and Seton Hall are WSU’s best tests to date.
“I like Kevin (Willard’s) team,” Marshall said. “I like how hard they play. He’s added some really good pieces. They’re very physical and aggressive and they’ve got talent. I think this team will win a lot of games.”
Not everybody is going to have a player with Whitehead’s talent and the Pirates gave the Shockers problems with their shot-blocking and size.
“He’s (Whitehead) a great player,” Baker said. “Very confident for his age. We just let him get a little too comfortable in that first half. Second half, we put the handcuffs on and limited his touches.”
Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard tested his team on the road after four at home and three in the Virgin Islands. There is no better way to prepare for trips to Creighton, Marquette, Villanova, etc. than a game in a hostile gym.
“That’s why I wanted to come out here and play,” he said. “I was looking to play a really good basketball team on the road to kind of teach our guys what it’s like in the Big East. It’s a great learning experience for our guys.”
▪ WSU has scored 122 of its 548 points off turnovers, while opponents have scored 58 after Shocker turnovers. That doesn’t count bad shots that the Shockers turn into easy baskets. VanVleet, Baker and Cotton all excel at creating steals and running the break. WSU’s big men get them the ball quickly when needed. Even more than three-point shooting (which is helped by turnovers) and rebounding, I think that is WSU’s defining stat so far.
“They did a good job capitalizing on the turnovers,” Willard said. “When we turned it over, we weren’t able to erase the turnovers, and that was huge.”