Key statistics: Three turnovers for Wichita State. Three. Two of them charging fouls on Fred VanVleet. That matches a three-turnover effort in last season’s win over No. 10 Northern Iowa at Koch Arena.
How the game turned: The Utes cut the lead to 39-35 in the second half and got some things going by getting to the line and playing better defense. WSU ran a play to get Shaq Morris a baseline dunk and, after a Utes miss, Markis McDuffie converted a three-pointer and a free throw for a 10-point lead. While the Utes briefly cut the margin to seven, it remained 10 or more.
Records: Utah 7-2, WSU 5-4
Stat that might surprise you: Zach Brown made five shots, only one three on one attempt, to show off his increasing diversification. Entering the game, 19 of his 35 shots came from behind the arc.
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Stat that shouldn’t surprise you: The Shockers made 10 of 25 threes. Perimeter defense was a problem for the Utes entering the game and WSU took full advantage with its best shooting game of the season.
Freshman watch: WSU hasn’t had an MVC Freshman of the Year since Randy Burns in 2002.
Markis McDuffie is on track to be a strong candidate after scoring 13 points and making 4 of 5 threes. In his past six games, McDuffie is averaging 9.6 points and is 11 of 18 from three-point range, in addition to grabbing nine steals. Key for a freshman: He keeps turnovers to a minimum, which combines for a nearly perfect recipe for playing time.
Bradley plays approximately 3,245 freshmen, so somebody will score a bunch of points. Missouri State’s Obediah Church averages 7.0 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.0 blocks while shooting 68.8 percent.
Why they’re All-Americans: Ron Baker scored seven points and played an excellent all-around game with five assists (no turnovers), four rebounds, four steals and one block. His hustle and physical play on defense played a lead role in frustrating the Utes. He picked on point guard Brandon Taylor on back-to-back plays in the first half, tying him up for a jumpball and blocking his shot.
VanVleet scored 10 points and handed out six assists with two turnovers. He played a major role in harassing Taylor and disrupting the offense. The play where he doubled Jakob Poeltl and forced the center to fall and lose the ball was vintage VanVleet, choosing the right time to attack a shaky ball-handler and possessing the strength and quickness to do it without fouling.
Both did the important work of dribbling into the lane against the Utah zone to suck in defenders and produce open three-pointers.
Rotation watch: WSU coach Gregg Marshall settled into a form that works and it appears unlikely to change much until (and if) center Anton Grady and guard Landry Shamet get healthy.
The Shockers will play matchups with their centers and watch Morris closely for fatigue. They are diligent in getting him out when he starts to bend over, lean on the opposition and exhibit other signs. When he can go full speed, he’s capable of good production.
The improved play of Brown and McDuffie at small forward moves Evan Wessel back to power forward, a place he often seems more comfortable defensively.
With McDuffie and Frankamp coming off the bench, the Shockers should hit teams with a burst of offense against backup defenders.
▪ Wichita State’s defense did many good things and most of them started with physical strength. The big men used their strength to keep the ball away from Poeltl. On the perimeter, WSU’s aggressiveness caused the Utes to rush shots. Jordan Loveridge and Kyle Kuzma, both double-figure scorers, combined to miss all nine of their shots.
“They muscled us,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “There aren’t any skinny guys on that roster, so props to whoever is putting this team in the weight room.”
▪ Tekele Cotton grew into a more complete offensive threat as his career progressed, especially driving to the basket. WSU missed that from its wing player earlier in the season.
Brown is more judicious and successful in his drives in recent games. Proof he is getting to the basket comes at the foul line, where he has taken 34 shots, second on the team.
Wessel is also showing more confidence in his drives. He is using a pump fake to get free and usually passing. Wessel has eight assists this season, after totaling 22 last season and nine as a sophomore.
▪ Neither Grady nor Shamet are close to returning. Grady isn’t practicing. Shamet is out of his cast, in a boot, and on crutches. Marshall spoke of hopefully getting Grady back at some point. A decision on Shamet, play or redshirt, is on hold until his possible return gets closer.
“(Grady) is going through a spinal concussion protocol,” Marshall said. “And I don’t know what that is, to be honest. He’s going to do what he can and eventually comeback, maybe. I don’t know. I let the doctors and the trainers, him and his parents, his family, deal with that. And when he comes back, it will be a plus.”
▪ I’m enjoying the Grant Gibbs in Baker’s game, as far as performing the dark arts of craftiness and veteran play. If an opposing player isn’t perfect setting a screen, Baker will draw the referee’s attention by either running into it (as he did with Utah’s Chris Reyes) or reacting with arms and body flailing. Same with defensive players who give him an opening with lazy footwork.
The strip of Isaiah Wright, called a foul, in the second half, was also quite clever. The replay angle isn’t great, so I can’t be sure it wasn’t a foul. Perhaps referee Gerry Pollard wanted to save Wright some embarrassment.
In general, I haven’t noticed a big difference in officiating since the opening foul-fest against Charleston Southern. Certainly, WSU has been able to play good, physical defense in its past three games.
Krystkowiak’s frustrations with the officiating began in the first half, when VanVleet whacked Taylor, unintentionally, in the head and refs called Taylor for traveling. They spilled over when WSU’s Rashard Kelly blocked a shot after it appeared to hit the backboard in the second half. Krystkowiak jumped on the court and earned his technical.
Of course, the Utes did outscore WSU by 12 points at the line. Officiating certainly didn’t determine this game.
▪ Utah is No. 29 in the RPI and the Pac-12 is No. 3 among conferences. I don’t see the Utes as a top-4 seed kind of team with its shaky road performances, but they appear to be a solid NCAA team. I expect something similar from UNLV, which already has wins over Indiana and Oregon.
Taylor also struggled in a 90-66 loss to Miami in Puerto Rico, finishing with four turnovers and one assist. His play at point must improve for the Utes to challenge in the Pac-12.
WSU’s RPI moved up to No. 49, which puts the Shockers in range of moving into safer ground.
Around the MVC
Northern Iowa missed 19 of 25 three-pointers and got little from its big men in a 76-57 loss at New Mexico.
According to warrennolan.com, five MVC teams are 200 or lower in the RPI.
Next up: at Seton Hall, 11 a.m. Saturday (FOX)
The Shockers can grab another helpful win at Seton Hall, which is 7-2 with an RPI of No. 47 entering Sunday’s game against Saint Peter’s.
The Pirates own wins over Georgia, Ole Miss and Bradley, with losses to Long Beach State and George Washington. They are turnover-prone, giving it away on almost 20 percent of their possessions.