Wichita State has lost three of its past five basketball games. The Shockers have lost three conference games for the first time in five years with still a month to play in the regular season.
Dominance like the kind Wichita State achieved recently in the Missouri Valley was not expected to be a given this season in the American Athletic Conference, but the Shockers have underperformed relative to their lofty preseason ranking with three losses to unranked foes in conference play: Houston (17-5), SMU (15-8) and Temple (12-10).
Are these natural growing pains for a team in a new conference, playing better competition? What is wrong with WSU’s defense, which numbers say is the worst it’s been since 2010? And is it time for fans to worry that Wichita State might not figure it out?
Below are opinions from ESPN’s Jay Bilas, CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish, NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster, CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein, and ESPN broadcasters John Thompson III and Mark Adams.
What sticks out to you when you watch this team play defense?
Adams: “Are they as good defensively as they have been? The answer right now is no. If you’re looking for a common thread in those five losses, here’s what I found: In the Notre Dame loss, Bonzie Colson went for 25. Trae Young went for 29 and 10 assists. Shake Milton went off for 33. Houston’s Rob Gray went for 24. Temple’s Quinton Rose scored 19 (on Thursday). Now that adds up to the other team’s best player averaging 26 points and shooting well over 50 percent. Really since Gregg (Marshall) has been here, that’s typically never happened. A big reason for that is some dude named Cotton and Baker and VanVleet. But if you look at this Wichita State team, they’re just not as good at deflecting dribble penetration as they’ve been in the past and I think that’s because they’re running into pro-level talent on a regular basis. You need potential pros defensively to guard them and that’s the challenge right now for Wichita State moving forward.”
Parrish: “They’re just not good on the defensive end and that’s really surprising. They were top-15 in defensive efficiency last year and it’s not the completely same cast, but a lot of the same characters. You can look at a team like Duke and it’s very easy to make sense of why they’re struggling. They’re all first-year players who have never had to play team defense before and they’re all learning together on the fly. You can explain it, but I don’t know how to explain why this Wichita State team isn’t better. They’ve got an unbelievable defensive coach and players who have done it before.”
Dauster: “They’re just not defending all that well and you kind of made the assumption coming into the season that a team coached by Gregg Marshall is going to defend well regardless of what conference and who they were playing. They just haven’t done that. It doesn’t make any sense to me and I can’t figure it out. I can give you the symptom, but I can’t give you the cure. It just doesn’t make any sense that a Gregg Marshall team is having issues on the defensive end. Maybe this is just what they are this year.”
Bilas: “Could they be playing better defense? Yes. I think the biggest thing in my mind is at the point of attack. I think they need to be putting a little more pressure on the ball handler and then be able to sustain it over the course of an entire possession.”
Has moving up a weight class to the American — with better talent and coaches — exposed some of Wichita State’s deficiencies it was able to hide in the Missouri Valley?
Parrish: “When they were in the Missouri Valley last year, there was one other top-100 KenPom team in the league. Now in the American, there’s basically four others plus Wichita State. So what is happening is Wichita State is playing quality opponents more regularly in January and February and where that catches up to you is that when you’re playing sub-100 teams like you were in the Valley, you have an off-night and that means you win by six instead of 16. It doesn’t mean you lose. So now you’re playing these top-100 teams and especially on the road, if you don’t play well then you will lose.”
Thompson: “I think that’s an easy narrative. But they know what it takes. This is one of the best programs in the country. Is the conference a step-up on a night-to-night basis? Yes. But they’ve just got to settle in. It’s no time to panic. They’ve been through it and they’re not going to panic. They’ve just got to fight through it.”
Bilas: “When you play in a better league, you’re going to get challenged a little more, especially on the road and that’s mainly what’s happened. They’re playing against bigger bodies and better athletes more consistently. So when you go on the road and you’re Wichita State with their reputation, then of course people are going to try to take a swing at them.”
Rothstein: “For a long time Wichita State was a really, really good team in a league except maybe Creighton that didn’t have another team that was a high-caliber team. This year you have several teams in the American that are NCAA-worthy and the ones behind them are still plenty capable. It’s just a lot tougher league.”
Adams: People who thought Wichita State was going to come into this league and have teams kiss their ring, that was never going to happen. Think about it: Wichita State has 11 new teams to prepare for every single game. The rest of the league has only one new preparation. That lack of familiarity with the league and what the strengths and weaknesses are of a team matters. You can study all of the video you want, but until you go into these actual matchups and learn the nuances of these teams and coaches, then it’s just guesswork. I think that’s what a lot of people don’t recognize is how hard it is for a new team to make this kind of transition.”
Landry Shamet has been in a funk recently. Do you see anything specifically going on with him?
Adams: “The one thing I like is that he’s still shooting the basketball and that’s what he needs to do. Shooters need to keep shooting. One constructive thing I’ve noticed from afar and this is dangerous because I’m not there in practice and I haven’t been around the team as much as I have been in the past, but his shot does look a little flat to me. If I was out rebounding for him, I would tell him to just give it a little more arch and you’re going to be fine. I like his release, his confidence, the fact that he looks good shooting the basketball. The kid can flat-out shoot it and he just needs to continue to shoot it with confidence and maybe give it a little more arch and he’s going to be fine.”
Dauster: “I think there might be something to him trying to maybe do a little bit too much. That might be a fair criticism and maybe that’s why you’re seeing his turnovers be popping up a little more than ideal.”
Should Wichita State fans be concerned at this point in the season?
Adams: “Isn’t this why Wichita State wanted to make the move? To be challenged and to be more tournament-ready and to play in a multiple-bid league? That’s why Wichita State joined the American, so fans need to stop complaining about it now that it’s here. My advice to every Wichita State fan is to take a deep breathe. It’s OK. I think this team came in with extremely high expectations and it’s natural to buy into that, but it also creates a lot of pressure on the coaches and the players. Of course every fan wants to believe every positive thing about their team, but you’ve also got to go out there and prove it.”
Bilas: “If Wichita State fans want to panic, then have at it. They can set their hair on fire and jump off the bandwagon because it doesn’t matter what they do. They’re just spectators. It only matters what Gregg Marshall and his team do and they’ve been through this thing before and they’re just going through a new league. They don’t hand out the trophy right now. It’s at the end of the season and I think that’s important to keep in mind that this is not the end of the story.”
Parrish: “What I would say first is that their struggles are relative to what they’ve been used to in recent years and what they were supposed to be in the preseason. But the truth is they’re sitting at 17-5 and they’re still top-25 in KenPom. It’s not like they’ve completely fallen off the radar. If Zach Brown makes that shot at Temple (in regulation), then you and I probably aren’t even talking right now. Things probably aren’t as bad as they feel to that fan base that is used to a lot of winning pretty much without exception.”
Thompson: “They’re in a funk, but that happens. They’re too well-coached; they’re a veteran team; and Shamet is one of the best guards in the country. They’ll be OK.”
Rothstein: “It’s a long season and I don’t think it’s time to panic just yet. There’s no question they have to get Shamet back on track and they also need to find a way to get Shamet, Frankamp, and Reaves all playing well at the same time. But there’s plenty of time to get that figured out.”
This was a consensus top-10 team before the season that had some Final Four buzz. Do the recent losses change your mind on if this team still has that ceiling?
Parrish: “Does Wichita State look like a top-10 team right now? The answer is no. But if they start guarding a little better, maybe a lot better, then they’re certainly still capable of that. I would be way more concerned if the pieces weren’t in place. But almost all of the pieces that made them really good last year are basically in place. It’s just a matter of doing it. I think people get fooled into thinking February is late in the season, but really it’s still early relative to what’s going to happen on Selection Sunday. What was the Wichita State team that made the Final Four doing around this time of the year? It’s a long way to Selection Sunday and a long way until you play in the NCAA Tournament.”
Dauster: “If they’re going to defend this way, they’re not a Final Four team in my mind. I do think it’s a mistake to say this team can’t be a contender because recent history in the Tournament has proven anybody can make a run. I had them in my Final Four in the preseason and they’re going to be nowhere near my Final Four now if this is what they’re going to be.”
Bilas: “Outside of the top-five, everybody has lost and they’re going to continue to lose because most teams this year have a hole. They’ve got deficiencies like a lot of teams. There’s only a few teams ahead of the pack: Purdue, Villanova, Virginia, and I think Michigan State is in that group. It really comes down to there’s still another month left in the season and that’s a very long time. A lot of people say well if the tournament started today, they would be in trouble. Well, the tournament doesn’t start today. There’s still plenty of time to get a lot better and really address what’s ailing your team.”