The past week has made Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall come to appreciate the art of passing more than ever.
After five straight years of protecting the basketball better than almost any program, Wichita State has a turnover epidemic. Through two games in American Athletic Conference play, the Shockers have committed 35 turnovers, the most in the conference. Almost a quarter of WSU’s possessions are ending without a shot attempt.
WSU doesn’t have a fifth-year Malcolm Armstead or a future NBA player like Fred VanVleet or Landry Shamet at point guard. Marshall’s two primary point guards have no prior Division I experience and they are surrounded by players with no prior Division I experience.
The biggest gut punch came Sunday when WSU (7-7) squandered an 11-point lead with three minutes remaining in regulation when it had a winning probability of 97.1 percent in an eventual 85-81 overtime loss to Temple. The Shockers committed a season-high 21 turnovers.
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“Watching that film was just excruciating,” Marshall said on his coaches’ show on Monday. “But the sun did come up. I wasn’t so sure this time (Sunday). But the sun did come up and we have to get back to work. We can’t get it back. It’s a missed opportunity.”
All turnovers are detrimental to the team, but the worst kind — ones that lead directly to points within seconds for the other team — are what Marshall calls “atomic bombs.”
When WSU was directed by Armstead, VanVleet and Shamet, atomic bombs were a rarity. They were experts at limiting devastating turnovers and WSU likely averaged fewer than one per game over the course of a season, those in the program estimate.
In WSU’s last three games alone, all losses, the Shockers committed 15 atomic-bomb turnovers. And that’s not counting twice when a WSU ball-handler was stripped and had to foul to prevent a fast-break layup.
“Maybe I need to wear a helmet over there on the sideline, like a World War II helmet,” Marshall joked. “My grandpa had one and he had it in his footlocker. A green helmet with the chin strap, I can wear that. I don’t know if I have an extra one for the rest of the staff. Maybe build a bomb shelter somewhere back in the tunnel where we can all go. We just don’t know when it’s coming. We don’t get any advanced warning.”
But WSU’s turnovers have come in all forms lately.
Ball-handlers have been stripped. Drivers have been called for push-off fouls. Screeners have been whistled for illegal screens. Passes have been dropped. Receivers haven’t met the ball; passers haven’t made crisp, cross-court throws.
You name it and WSU has likely turned it over in that fashion lately.
“I make them run for turnovers (in practice),” Marshall said. “I guess that’s not enough. We’ve got to get better at making decisions. Dribbling and passing are lost arts in college basketball, especially around here right now. We don’t dribble or pass well, much less shoot it well.”
Let’s take a deeper look at the turnovers plaguing the Shockers:
Adjusting to a new level
There are nuances to adjusting to the caliber of athletes at the Division I level that just take time and experience to fully comprehend. It’s easier to mask this when you can surround first-year players with veterans whose experience can help carry them. That’s not a luxury Marshall has because all seven of WSU’s first-year players are core players.
That means multiple first-year players are having to learn these intricacies as they go with multiple first-year players on the court with them. Let me show you what these intricacies can look like.
Below is a turnover from Ricky Torres late in regulation of Sunday’s loss to Temple. This is a pass that more than likely would not be deflected at the junior-college level.
The first mistake by Torres is staring down his target, Markis McDuffie, not even 10 feet away. I paused the clip when McDuffie broke and when the ball should have been delivered. But Torres waits a split-second too late, which is the split-second Shizz Alston needed to recover and lunge at the ball and ultimately deflect it off McDuffie out of bounds.
Not every defender has the instincts, quickness and length of Alston, but there are Alston’s (defensively-speaking) on every team in the upper-echelon of the AAC. Torres isn’t used to calculating for that. To quote Marshall, “part of the art of passing is knowing when to pass.”
That doesn’t make Torres a bad point guard. He’s the best passer on the team on team that desperately needs someone to create offense. But that doesn’t make Torres perfect in his decision-making. He has a 30-percent turnover rate, which is way too high for a point guard, and he also made another crucial turnover late in regulation of the Temple when he tried to throw a back-door pass to Dennis due to miscommunication. It’s just unfortunate for WSU this learning moment came during a crucial moment.
Let’s take a look at an another example, this time a WSU turnover that occurs because freshman Dexter Dennis isn’t used to having to use his body to shield a defender coming from the back-side to swipe the ball.
It’s hard to operate with that level of cautiousness if you’ve never had to do that in your career. But that’s what competing in the AAC requires and that’s what Marshall tried to impress upon his players before going up against a Temple team that ranked fifth in the country in steal rate. That’s why that particular play stuck out in Marshall’s mind on his coaches’ show on Monday.
“We told them these are kids that played on the playground, man,” Marshall said. “These are city kids. They’re going to cut passing lanes.
“I told the players before they go out, ‘Do not relax. You cannot relax.’”
This was an instance where Dennis relaxed for a split-second and a NBA-caliber player in Temple’s Quinton Rose made a NBA-caliber play and it resulted in an atomic bomb for WSU. Chalk it up to another learning moment for a WSU freshman.
Speaking of freshmen, Here’s a fun fact: at least one has been on the court for WSU every second of every game this season.
There’s no way getting around it: Marshall is forced to play at least one, usually two and sometimes even three or four freshmen at the same time. And when freshmen play that many minutes in these large of roles, they are going to make mistakes.
“It’s crazy what we’re doing with them sometimes and how silly we are with the basketball and how we don’t execute,” Marshall said. “But that’s who we are, that’s where we are, that’s what we are right now and we’ve got to try to continue to evolve and get better.”
WSU’s five freshmen make up 40 percent of the team’s total turnovers. Here are two examples of freshman mistakes that turned into atomic bombs for WSU.
The first clip shows a mistake by freshman Jamarius Burton that drove Marshall crazy. Burton was aware of the pressure from Temple’s Nate Pierre-Louis when he secured the rebound, but lets his guard down when Pierre-Louis goes out of his peripheral. Again, this is a case where Burton was likely able to get away with this at the high school level.
But against top-tier defenders like Pierre-Louis, ball-handlers are required to constantly be aware of their surroundings, especially in transition. Here’s what Marshall had to say about that standard:
“I’m not one of these guys that subscribes to the notion that you’re supposed to have to tell a kid, a point guard, with the basketball that’s someone is coming from behind,” Marshall said. “When that happens in practice, they’ll turn around and go, ‘That’s not my fault, someone has to tell me it’s coming,’ like it’s youth basketball and we’re supposed to call, ‘wolf.’ In Koch Arena, you can’t do that. Those things cannot happen. That’s like coaching eighth-graders.”
These are the type of plays that Marshall has to stomach this season. Marshall has never had to have this level of patience because he has never had to play this many freshman this many minutes.
But that’s why it’s worth sticking with Stevenson, Dennis, Burton, Morris Udeze and Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler through their mistakes this season. While it may make for some gray hairs this year, the long-term pay-off is likely going to be worth it.
These are the type of turnovers Marshall can live with, especially with a team like this that is struggling on offense.
Aggressive turnovers still are turnovers, but too often the Shockers are turning the ball over without even a sniff of aggressive play. At least aggressive turnovers come when WSU is in attack mode. Most of these type of turnovers come from Markis McDuffie, so let’s focus on the senior. First, you need the context.
McDuffie is currently playing 79.7 percent of minutes and leads WSU in usage rate. In 12 years at WSU, Marshall has only played one player (Ron Baker as a junior) more than 80 percent of minutes. That establishes that McDuffie is shouldering one of the biggest loads for WSU in the Marshall era.
So while turnovers like this are frustrating to watch unfold:
They’re an acceptable cost of business when McDuffie is making many more plays like these:
In the meantime, Marshall is still trying to come up with new ways to coach avoiding turnovers in practice. And with three of the best defensive teams in the conference coming up, starting with a Saturday road trip at Houston, WSU can use all of the practice it can get.
“It’s hard to simulate the decision-making part in practice,” Marshall said. “What we’re going to do (Tuesday) in our 5-on-5 part of our scrimmage is we will just try to steal the ball. Don’t worry about playing the gaps or worry about driving angles and helping, just try to steal the ball. We need more practice at that.”