The worst moments in Canada provided some of the most important memories for Wichita State basketball players.
Throughout the four-game August exhibition tour — and especially in a 100-75 loss to Carleton University — the Shockers learned the lesson of team defense. One brain cramp, one hesitation, one half-speed effort can doom a defensive stand, even if four defenders play it correctly.
“We’re really focused on being the No. 1 defensive team in the country again,” junior Zach Brown said. “All five people have to be on the same page. If one person isn’t doing the right thing, the whole system is off.”
The Shockers turned team defense into a season-defining asset in 2015-16. They ranked No. 1 nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s statistic for defensive efficiency by holding teams to .876 points per possession (1.03 ranked in the middle of the nation; North Carolina led the nation in offensive efficiency at 1.23).
The Shockers excelled by forcing turnovers on 23.2 percent of possessions (No. 5 nationally) and holding teams to 42.1-percent shooting on two-pointers (No. 8). They ranked No. 22 in steals percentage (11.0) and No. 67 in blocked shots percentage (11.3).
That’s a lot of possessions ending badly for the offense.
In more traditional stats, WSU led the Missouri Valley Conference by holding teams to 59 points and 38.7-percent shooting. It led the Valley with an average of 7.3 steals and finished the job by grabbing an MVC-best 76.2 percent of defensive rebounds.
“That’s what we’ve been working on,” center Shaq Morris said. “Coach (Gregg) Marshall has in a lot of (drills), making sure everybody’s in the right position, ready to sacrifice their body, taking charges and stuff like that.”
Gone from that team are three ace defenders — Ron Baker, Evan Wessel and Fred VanVleet. Beyond their obvious physical gifts, all three served as smart, hard-working team defenders. The Shockers finished in the top 26 of Pomeroy’s defensive stats the past five seasons. It won’t be easy for this team to match those rankings.
The Shockers struggled at times in Canada against smart, disciplined teams, who had the benefit of more summer practice. Those struggles continue in practices.
“It’s certainly not where we need it to be or want it to be,” Marshall said. “I can’t put my finger on one exact thing, but it’s pretty frustrating when it’s so bad. There’s times where somebody can just go and lay the ball in the basket. We’ve just to keep drilling it and keep working on it and pounding it in.”
The previous five Shocker teams built strong defense on seniors such as Toure Murry and Ben Smith in 2011-12, lockdown perimeter defenders such as Tekele Cotton, shot-blockers such as Carl Hall and the well-rounded physical play of Baker and VanVleet.
Current Shockers such as Rashard Kelly show good instincts for taking charges. Brown and sophomore Markis McDuffie took on prime defensive assignments last season. Morris blocks shots. Marshall will again use his depth to defeat foul trouble, press and wear down opponents.
As a group, however, it’s still learning how to move and and work in unison. It’s a group that Marshall says needs to talk more and that is especially true on defense.
“You need to be talkative on defense, you need to let them know you’re helping them,” center Rauno Nurger said. “You need to let them know when you’re switching.”
Problems crop up when a dribbler beats a defender, drawing help, and Shockers neglect to cover up the helper’s man. Or when a guard neglects to sink in the lane to block out a big man when his teammate is defending on the perimeter. Baker, VanVleet, and Wessel knew those movements like the path down the Koch Arena tunnel to the locker room.
“You’ve got to see the ball away from the ball,” Marshall said. “You’ve got to be there to help your buddy when he needs it, and hopefully he’ll be there to help you when you need it. And then, sometimes you’ve got to help the helper.”
Trust is word most often used when describing team defense.
“More than anything, it’s trust,” Morris said. “You can take a chance and know your teammate behind you defending will help you. No matter where you are, you’re always defending the ball.”
With that philosophy, Wichita State played in five straight NCAA Tournaments and won four of the past five MVC titles. In that time, five Shockers earned spots on the MVC All-Defensive team with Cotton and VanVleet multiple honorees. Cotton twice claimed Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Those are the standards for defense at Wichita State. Living up to those teams started in August in Canada and tough lessons in helping a teammate.