Wichita State looked every part of a team that had nine players play in their first Division I game in a 71-58 loss to Louisiana Tech on Tuesday in the season opener.
The Shockers had a miserable shooting night, punctuated by their worst free-throw-shooting performance in a decade. And that came at Koch Arena in a game in which they were favored.
There’s no let up in WSU’s nonconference schedule. Now those nine newcomers will get their first experience in a national spotlight, as the Shockers (0-1) play Providence (1-0) at Alumni Hall on the Navy campus in Annapolis, Md., on Friday in a 5 p.m. tip-off. The game is part of the Veterans Classic and will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.
Clearly, WSU must play better to compete against a borderline top-25 team. Here are three easy fixes the Shockers can make from Tuesday’s performance to avoid their first 0-2 start since the 1990-91 season.
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1. Boxing out
With so much youth, this year’s team was never going to come close to replicating last year’s offensive juggernaut or restore the Shockers’ defense to one of the best in the nation right away.
But a trait that was expected to carry over was a commitment to rebounding. Since Gregg Marshall arrived at WSU, the Shockers (even in the rebuilding years when Marshall first came) were dominant rebounding teams. According to KenPom.com, WSU has finished in the top 40 of defensive rebounding percentage the last 11 seasons, collecting anywhere from 73 to 77 percent of defensive rebounds.
On Tuesday, against a Louisiana Tech team that was a mediocre rebounding team last season, that number was 64 percent.
“I’m not accustomed to being outrebounded,” Marshall said. “Not only were we outrebounded, but we were smashed on the glass.”
Rebounding has been a heavy emphasis for the Shockers this week in practice.
“What I would tell them is not printable,” Marshall said when asked what the message would be. “We were bigger (Tuesday), but not quicker and stronger and tougher to the basketball.”
WSU has almost no experience with its posts, and it showed in reviewing the 10 offensive rebounds WSU gave up on Tuesday.
Multiple times a WSU post would do well to gain inside position as the shot went up. But their mistake was thinking their job was complete. Instead of maintaining contact and using their frame to go up for the rebound, WSU’s players left enough space for Louisiana Tech’s players to jump unencumbered and swipe the ball for offensive rebounds.
The good news is that this is an easily correctable error. The problem is that it happened so often, something WSU’s quartet of Jaime Echenique, Asbjorn Midtgaard, Morris Udeze and Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler will have to be diligent with against Providence.
2. Communicate better in transition
Another symptom of a young team is not knowing when to talk and how much to talk.
That was clear after watching WSU give up wide-open looks multiple times against Louisiana Tech in its transition defense. The problem wasn’t necessarily fastbreaks, as WSU usually had a numbers advantage when Louisiana Tech started its attack.
The problem was when WSU’s last defender running back was caught in a cross-switch and needed to communicate to another Shocker defender to cover their man. These are difficult situations, but they can be overcome by chatter on the court.
The video above shows multiple times when WSU needed to communicate a switch, but the player (usually a freshman) didn’t talk to let his teammates know. The result typically ended with the last WSU defender sprinting back only to double-team someone without the ball, as the player they’re supposed to be guarding is shooting a wide open set shot from the other side of the court.
“Those are mistakes that young kids make,” Marshall said. “They’ve never played in this kind of environment and played in a game like this against competition like this. My hope is that the more times that they see that, they will continue to improve. Like we’ve said, we need them to grow up sooner rather than later.”
While Louisiana Tech didn’t make the Shockers pay as much as they could have, Providence is loaded with the type of shooters who can make leaving them open on the three-point line fatal.
Players don’t have to talk and communicate nearly as much at the high school level and on the AAU circuit. It’s not surprising many of WSU’s freshmen weren’t quite ready for that communication challenge.
But after being drilled about it in a few more practices, WSU can tighten up its defense by not allowing so many open looks. And the solution is easy: talk more.
3. The seniors have to be more selective
WSU isn’t going to beat any good teams when its two seniors, Samajae Haynes-Jones and Markis McDuffie, combine to shoot 21 percent and score 15 points on 24 shots like they did on Tuesday.
A little can be chalked up to an off night shooting. While McDuffie hit an early three, he finished the game 1 for 8 on jump shots. Haynes-Jones was 0 for 9.
Some of those shots will start falling. McDuffie took several confident, in-rhythm jumpers that were open and just missed. Haynes-Jones also had his fair share of open looks.
But the problem came when the shots weren’t falling and both players still pressed on. Too many times Haynes-Jones and McDuffie pulled the trigger too early and took heavily-contested shots. Refraining from those low-percentage looks will be crucial against Providence.
If both can be more selective with their shot selection on Friday and ideally see one of their first jumpers go in, that should calm the nerves and allow both Haynes-Jones and McDuffie to play within themselves.
“We’re still going to ride (McDuffie),” Marshall said after the Louisiana Tech game “He’s still our best player, he’s just got to be more efficient.
“We’ve sent several guys to the NBA and none of them scored 20 a game. But we’re sending guys to the NBA because they’re efficient and they’re shooting high percentages and have positive assist-turnover ratios and they make winning plays and they knock down their free throws. That’s how you have to do it, and I think he’ll figure it out.”