The Wichita State men’s basketball team is in the midst of its worst stretch in a decade with no let-up in sight as conference leader Central Florida and defending champion Cincinnati head to Koch Arena this week.
But now is not the time to panic, especially if you’re Gregg Marshall, the head coach who has to figure out how to put an end to a four-game losing streak and winless start in conference play against two of the best defenses in the nation. WSU (7-8, 0-3 AAC) hosts UCF (13-2, 3-0) at Koch Arena on Wednesday for a 9:05 p.m. tip-off broadcast on CBS Sports Network.
Losing never sits well with Marshall, but this season and this team, with so many newcomers, has challenged him to embrace a new approach to how to deal with those losses.
“I don’t think anyone is real happy about it,” Marshall said. “But we’ve got guys that are trying to get better and that’s all we can do. We don’t control the schedule. All we can do is control our effort and our passion for the game and our passion for improvement. Ultimately, that’s what’s going to get us on the slide that we’re in.
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“Not being upset and angry or get too down on everyone. I, myself, am down, but at the same time I’m trying to stay positive and build up these young players. That’s my role as a leader. I can’t show every day the frustration. Every day has to be an opportunity to get better.”
WSU failed to close out a sure win against Temple, then challenged Memphis and Houston on the road before ultimately falling in both games. The Shockers aren’t as far away as their record suggests, something UCF coach Johnny Dawkins is stressing to his team before Wednesday’s game.
“They’re very deceiving because they are a team that has talent and they have (Markis) McDuffie, who is one of the best players in the nation, and they have a great coach (Gregg Marshall),” Dawkins said. “They’re capable of beating any team in this conference on any given night. Throw their record out the window, we know they’re a good basketball team.”
Central Florida has forged a reputation as a defensive team under Dawkins, but the return of his son, Aubrey, has injected the Knights with an offensive punch that might make them the most well-rounded team in the conference. UCF has a go-to player in senior guard B.J. Taylor (17.3 points), with Aubrey Dawkins (15.9 points, 5.7 rebounds) serving as the ideal right-hand man.
“I had the chance to see his dad play in my era and he was a tremendous player,” Marshall said of the Dawkins’ father-son duo. “Aubrey is a bigger; Johnny was always wiry and fast with a beautiful jump shot and he handed that down. His kid can shoot it and he can drive it. He plays the right way.”
But UCF’s defense has remained elite, largely due to the Knights being the seventh-tallest team in the country. Tacko Fall (7-foot-6) is one of the 40 tallest living humans on the planet and gives UCF a decisive advantage when he’s on the court. He makes 80 percent of his shots (although just 27 percent from the free-throw line) and blocks 3.1 shots per game.
Throw in 6-11 Collin Smith (7.7 points, 5.7 rebounds) and 6-9 Chad Brown (5.2 points, 5.1 rebounds) and it’s easy to see why opponents make less than 42 percent of their two-pointers against UCF. The guards feel confident over-pursuing on the perimeter because they know UCF has the shot-blockers inside to make up for it.
That likely means fewer shots at the rim for WSU and more jump shots. Players who are struggling consistently knocking down outside shots, like Samajae Haynes-Jones, Dexter Dennis, Ricky Torres, Jamarius Burton and Erik Stevenson, could swing the game if they start making them.
“When (Fall) is in, you have to be very wise when you penetrate,” Marshall said. “Sometimes you have to penetrate to kick. He can be away from the basket and still reach around the block just about any little guard’s attempts. He erases a lot of mistakes. We talk about how Jaime Echenique erases mistakes; this kid is the ultimate eraser you’re going to find.”
Marshall joked there was one positive to come out of Wednesday’s game: “We’ll be done with Houston and Central Florida after (Wednesday) night.”
The schedule eases up and the Shockers will have a chance to make a run in the months of February and March. In the meantime, they are left to scrap for as many wins as they can scrounge together in January.
“Our goal is to continue to get better so we can be a potential team to try to steal a bid come tournament time,” Marshall said. “That’s kind of where we are. It’s unusual for us this time of year to be saying that, but I think that’s pretty much a foregone conclusion. We’re getting better. We’ve just got to continue to work hard.”
Central Florida at Wichita State
Records: UCF 13-2, 3-0 AAC; WSU 7-8, 0-3
When: 9:05 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Koch Arena (10,506), Wichita, Kan.
TV: CBS Sports Network (643 UVerse, 260 Cox, 221 DirecTV, 158 DISH)
Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM
About Central Florida: The Knights were the preseason pick to win the AAC and remain the only undefeated team in conference play with a 3-0 record. A win at WSU would give UCF its best start to conference play in program history... UCF’s 13-2 start and current seven-game winning streak are the best marks in the program since 2011... After developing a defensive reputation last season, UCF’s offense leads the conference in field goal percentage and three-point shooting percentage... The defense is still elite, as UCF ranks third nationally in scoring defense at 61.7 points per game... The Knights are 7-0 when allowing 63 points or less... Returning from a season-ending injury last year, Aubrey Dawkins has already been named AAC Player of the Week twice this season. He is averaging 15.9 points and 5.7 rebounds... UCF senior Tacko Fall is 7-foot-6, making him among the 40 tallest living humans in the world and taller than any college or NBA player. He is UCF’s career blocks leader and ranks sixth in the country at 3.1 per game this season. He also is making 80 percent of his shots.
About Wichita State: Gregg Marshall will coach his 400th game at WSU, the most in program history. He’s won 73 percent of his games in 12 seasons and needs just seven more wins to reach the 300-win plateau... Marshall is 2-0 against UCF at WSU... It’s been four weeks since the last WSU victory on Dec. 19 against Oral Roberts. The current four-game losing streak is the program’s longest since January 2009... WSU senior Markis McDuffie ranks second in the AAC in scoring at 19.3 points per game. He’s topped 20 points six times and has been in double-digits the last 14 games, which is the second-longest streak in the Marshall era... The Shockers are 76-5 at Koch Arena in the last six seasons... McDuffie has a chance to become the all-time three-point leader in program history for a forward. The top 13 on WSU’s career list are all guards, but McDuffie (113 threes) needs 18 threes to pass the highest forward in Rob Kampman (2001-05). McDuffie needs 21 points to crack the top-30 all-time career scoring list for WSU... Eight different WSU players have led the team in rebounding the last nine games.