First, let’s get the notable streaks out of the way following No. 17 Houston’s 79-70 victory over Wichita State at the Fertitta Center on Saturday night.
▪ The Shockers (7-8) have lost four straight games for the first time since January 2009.
▪ WSU has lost its first three games in the American Athletic Conference, its first 0-3 to start conference play since 2009.
▪ After being college basketball’s best road team for the last eight years, WSU is 0-4 on the road this season with the losses coming by a combined 68 points.
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That’s a lot of doom-and-gloom, but there were a few positives the Shockers could take away from their road trip to Houston.
1. Same song, different verse — The Shockers led for almost the entire game against Davidson and Temple and fought back to challenge Alabama and Memphis. On Saturday, WSU again showed some fight to battle against Houston.
What do all those game have in common? Losses for WSU.
“Seems like a broken record: we play well for 20 minutes or so, then things don’t go our way and we can’t right the ship,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said.
WSU played one of its best halves of the season to take a 38-33 halftime lead over Houston, but quickly gave up a 14-0 run in the second half. The Shockers showed resiliency to come back and take a 56-55 lead with 10:55 remaining, but Houston reeled off an 11-1 run to restore its cushion and WSU could never come closer than five the rest of the way.
“We haven’t completed a 40-minute game yet,” WSU freshman Dexter Dennis said. “We were up at halftime on a good team, but at the end of the day, we still lost.
“We just have to grow up and start finishing these games. It’s simple.”
The solution, however, is not.
When asked if he could peg what ails the Shockers late in close losses, Marshall said he’s still guessing at that answer.
“If I could change it, I would,” he promised. “If the games were 20 minutes, we’d be pretty good. We might be really good. Maybe we’re the three-quarters Shockers, instead of the half-Shockers.”
For one, Houston coach Kelvin Sampson was impressed by the Shockers.
“The Wichita State kids came in ready to play,” Sampson said. “Having a week off really helps a program like Wichita State. I was a bit worried about this game.
“Coach Marshall had a great plan and his kids played really hard. I’d much rather have a kid that hates to lose than a kid who wants to win. Everybody wants to win. They like how winning sounds, but I’d rather have a kid who hates to lose.”
WSU returns to Wichita to play host to conference leader Central Florida on Wednesday, then defending champion Cincinnati on Saturday.
“It’s hard losing,” WSU senior Markis McDuffie said. “It sucks and I hope the fans know it sucks. We’re the ones playing basketball and we’re the ones dealing with it.”
“(McDuffie) is a competitor and he’s used to winning and he’s won a lot of games around here,” Marshall said. “This is hard for him, hard for me, hard for all of us. But we’ll come back and we’ll continue to try to get better. We are playing murderer’s row right now at the beginning of the conference.”
2. ‘We’re a good team, it’s just a matter of time’ — For an offense that had struggled mightily, especially recently, Wichita State can take pride in finishing with the fourth most-efficient performance this season against Houston’s top-20 defense.
The Shockers made nine three-pointers and shot 37.5 percent beyond the arc, both the second-best marks against Houston this season. On defense, WSU limited Corey Davis Jr. and Armoni Brooks in a half-court setting.
“It just shows what we’re capable of,” McDuffie said. “We’ve just got to get over the hump. This season is not over. We’re 0-3, but we got 15 more games left. We can turn this around. We’re a good team, it’s just a matter of time.”
In its first three conference games, WSU has proved it can not only hang with, but build leads on teams like Houston, Temple and Memphis. But what is keeping the Shockers from winning is the consistency over the course of a game.
For 37 minutes, WSU was every bit as good as Houston on the road.
But for a three-minute stretch halfway through the second half, the Shockers went from up one, 56-55, with 10:55 remaining to down 66-57 with 7:31 remaining thanks to a barrage of three-pointers from Brooks and Davis Jr.
“We were playing good defense, then it got away from us in transition,” Dennis said. “They got it rolling and you know how it goes. It wasn’t (impossible), but it’s not easy guarding them in transition. It was doable, we just fell short.”
Houston more than doubled the Shockers in fast-break points (17 to 7) and second-chance points (14 to 6), which negated a lot of positive things WSU accomplished.
“I thought we did an excellent job in the half-court,” WSU freshman Jamarius Burton said. “We were talking, we were moving, and we were playing hard. I’m good if we go out there and play hard like that. I felt like we left it all on the court.
“That’s a step in the right direction because we fought hard until the end. There were plays that didn’t go our way, but we left it all out there and that’s all you can ask for.”
3. The difference shooting makes — Last season Wichita State featured three snipers on its team in Landry Shamet, Conner Frankamp and Austin Reaves. All three players have since departed and left the Shockers without the same ability to stretch defenses.
While WSU had one of its better shooting games of the season (9 of 24 on three-pointers), Marshall feels like his team isn’t comfortable yet beyond the arc.
“Some of our guys can shoot it OK, but they don’t know when to shoot,” Marshall said. “They’ll be wide open one possession and not shoot, then the next possession they’ll hoist one off-balance and it’s just a terrible shot. It’s just young players.”
Houston’s pair of sharpshooters, Davis. Jr. and Brooks, didn’t shoot well over the course of the game (8 of 22 combined on threes), but they did make three during Houston’s 11-1 flurry that changed the game halfway through the second half.
Shooters the caliber of Davis Jr. and Brooks stretches defenses, opening driving lanes and the blocks for bigs to operate. On a WSU team that ranks 288th in the country in three-point percentage, the court shrinks on offense for the Shockers because they don’t have shooters that have a gravitational pull on defenses.
On Saturday, WSU made just 40 percent (12 of 30) of its two-pointers against Houston.
“Those guys are snipers and we need snipers,” Marshall said. “Markis can make a shot, Samajae (Haynes-Jones) will make a shot, but other than that, we’re pretty limited with shooters. Our guys, they don’t see that in practice. They don’t see a sniper that can rise up from 25 feet and stroke it, especially when there’s a high-school contest. We’ve got a lot of guys that lose those type of shooters and when the shot goes up, they stay on the ground and put their hand up as if it’s good enough. And it’s not. It’s not good enough against good players that can really stroke it.”
4. Not enough help for the seniors — McDuffie and Haynes-Jones were the only two scorers in double-figures for the Shockers, as the duo combined for 36 points on 12-of-30 shooting. The other nine players combined for 34 points on 9-of-24 shooting.
“Those are the only two players with college-basketball experience,” Marshall offered up.
While that may be true, WSU will need more support to win games in the AAC, especially ones on the road.
Junior center Jaime Echenique looked to be that third piece, but a foot injury has limited his production. On Saturday, Echenique fouled out in less than 15 minutes with five points and four rebounds.
Dennis scored eight points with six rebounds, but he was the only other Shocker other than the seniors to take more than four shots.
“We’ve just got to keep the ball moving and the good players, the best players will take the shot because the ball will find them,” Burton said. “We’re just trying to keep the ball moving and whoever is open can take the shot. We’ve got to set good screens, too. If we can get Markis and Samajae open, then the defense will collapse and that will open up the rest of us.”
Meanwhile, Houston had four scorers in double-digits and 22 bench points compared to just 17 off the bench for the Shockers.
“They know their spots and they know who to throw it to,” McDuffie said of Houston. “That’s why they’re one of the best teams in the country right now. We’re a young team and we fought really hard, but they made the big plays toward the end of the game. The right guys made the right shots and that’s what veteran teams do.”
5. A foul problem — During its four-game losing streak, WSU has been whistled for 13 more fouls and shot 44 fewer free throws than its opponent.
That trend continued on Saturday, as WSU was called for 26 fouls and sent Houston to the free-throw line 29 times.
“It’s like that every game,” Marshall said. “The other team is in the bonus real early. It’s not the same referee crew that travels around with us, so I assume it’s us.”
Houston reached the bonus before seven minutes remaining in both halves.
“Things didn’t go our way in the second half, but we still continued to fight,” McDuffie said. “A lot of people thought we were going to get smacked, honestly. Thought we were going to get blown out and there was no chance of us winning. I thought we came in here and played our (hearts out).”