Wichita State’s season-best four-game winning streak came to a predictable end at FifthThird Arena on Sunday, where Cincinnati dispatched the Shockers 72-62.
It was a game between an American Athletic Conference championship contender and a middle-of-the-pack team, and it played out as such. Cincinnati won its 14th straight game at home this season to improve to 21-4 and 10-2 in conference play, while WSU fell to 12-12 and 5-7 in the AAC.
While the shooting numbers (26.8 percent from the field and 25.7 percent beyond the arc) weren’t pleasant, WSU did find positives in its play.
Here are five things to know from the 10-point Shockers loss:
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1. WSU completely dominated second-half rebounding
The game was tied in the first half going into the final eight minutes, but Cincinnati won seemingly every loose ball and controlled the glass (28-21 rebounding advantage) to spring a 34-24 lead by halftime.
What came next was domination by WSU in the final 20 minutes. The Shockers rebounded 17 of 18 misses on the defensive end, then grabbed 50 percent of their own misses for 13 offensive rebounds. Count them up and WSU grabbed 68 percent of the rebounds in the second half, a 30-14 edge.
“Shockers are known for rebounding and we weren’t doing our thing in the first half,” WSU freshman Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler said. “(Marshall) got on our head about it, so we came out fired up and we knew we had to bring it after that.”
With centers Jaime Echenique and Asbjorn Midtgaard in foul trouble, Marshall turned to the freshman in the second half and Poor Bear-Chandler provided the spark. He finished with a career-high seven rebounds, including six offensive rebounds, and added six points in 10 minutes, all in the second half.
Poor Bear-Chandler scored four straight points, courtesy of putbacks, in the second half to ignite a 7-0 run that trimmed Cincinnati’s lead to 46-40 with 12:03 remaining.
“Shoot, (offensive rebounding) was keeping me in the game, so I had to keep doing it,” Poor Bear-Chandler said.
In total, WSU’s three-headed monster at center produced 13 of WSU’s 19 offensive rebounds. That allowed the Shockers to outscore UC 23-6 on second-chance points, but that wasn’t nearly enough on such a porous shooting day.
“You’re going to get a lot of opportunities to score second-chance points when you shoot it the way we did,” Marshall said.
For as good as WSU’s bigs were on the offensive glass, WSU wing Dexter Dennis was even better on the defensive glass. The freshman recorded his first career double-double with 14 points and a career-high 13 rebounds, 12 of which came on the defensive end.
Many of those are the result of Echenique and Midtgaard box-outs, but there were a handful of plays where Dennis used his athleticism to swoop in and track down a rebound to finish the defensive stop.
“He’s one of those guys that we have athletically that can compete in a game like this,” Marshall said. “He doesn’t give up much from the size and athleticism perspective. He was just battling, thank goodness.”
2. Cincinnati had a great game plan on Markis McDuffie
In the first meeting, Cincinnati primarily sat back in a 2-3 match-up zone and banked on the Shockers not being able to make enough outside shots. That proved to be a good strategy, but it also allowed McDuffie free rein around the perimeter and he was able to score 21 points against the Bearcats at Koch Arena.
McDuffie has thrived on the perimeter this season during middle pick-and-rolls. WSU places him on the wing, so it’s his defenders’ responsibility to help on the rolling big man down the middle of the lane as the big-man defender recovers. McDuffie spots up and WSU’s point guard is usually able to throw back to find him for an open catch-and-shoot.
The first adjustment by Cincinnati was to switch to a switch-everything man defense for the majority of the game. The second adjustment, a truly special one dialed up by Mick Cronin, was to essentially have the Bearcats execute a triple switch every time they sniffed out WSU’s bread-and-butter play.
So when WSU brought its center to screen for the point guard, the two defenders switched. But instead of having the guard defender trying to muscle WSU’s center out of the lane, Cincinnati would switch again by having McDuffie’s defender slide over to cover the roller. This allowed the perimeter defender that was guarding the ball to immediately turn his eyes to McDuffie on the wing and take away the throw-back pass.
“They’re really good defensively and they were very conscious of the roll up this time,” McDuffie said. “They would switch and the guard would just turn around and guard me and it was like I was rolling up for nothing. They made it difficult to score because every time you catch somebody is right there.”
That prevented McDuffie from taking his first shot for the game’s first nine minutes. He finished the game 4 of 15 shooting, but Cronin admitted after the game that it wasn’t entirely a credit to the defense.
“In fairness to Markis, I thought he got some looks that he normally makes,” Cronin said. “But we put a lot of effort into it. When a guy has to work that hard every game for every shot because everybody is playing that kind of defense on him, it’s tough. And what happens is you finally get that open one and then you don’t have the legs to make it.”
3. WSU’s defense inside the arc was lights out
It was far from a perfect defensive game, but there’s no questioning the Shockers came to play in terms of matching Cincinnati’s toughness when the Bearcats went into attack mode.
Cincinnati entered Sunday’s game having made exactly half of its two-point shots. But on Sunday, the Bearcats made just 10 of 36 two-pointers for 27.8 percent, a season-low in both two-point makes and percentage.
“We’re getting better as a team,” WSU senior Markis McDuffie said. “We showed some growth here (Sunday) to give it our all, instead of folding. We fought hard until the end. We have to keep our heads up and try to win the next one now.”
The No. 1 reason why WSU excelled in its two-point defense was the play of its centers. Echenique and Midtgaard each blocked three shots, while Midtgaard played perhaps the best defensive game of his young Shocker career.
The 7-footer from Denmark not only blocked three shots, but he altered at least that many with his length around the rim. He also added seven points and seven rebounds. Echenique (four points, 11 rebounds, three blocks) also affected several of Cincinnati’s driving shots in the paint with good contests. UC missed 15 of 23 shots at the rim.
WSU did struggle to stay attached to UC shooters on the perimeter (Jarron Cumberland drilled six threes en route to a game-high 27 points), but the Shockers played spectacular defense when their defense was set. WSU forced UC into 13 mid-range jumpers and contested almost all of them, as the Bearcats missed 11.
The 27.8 percent on two-pointers was also a season-best for WSU’s defense.
“This season is about small victories for us,” Marshall said. “We didn’t win the game. We weren’t supposed to win the game against a very good team with a great home-court advantage, but we saw some positives and now I’ve got to get more guys playing well.”
4. WSU couldn’t figure out how to make UC’s switch-happy defense pay
The Shockers never looked comfortable against Cincinnati’s shape-shifting defense. The Bearcats claim they play a matchup zone, but in reality it functions more like a switch-happy man defense.
WSU tried to run its zone offense against Cincinnati with little success. The ball screens that usually free up Haynes-Jones, Burton or Ricky Torres to split the top of a zone and attack to make a play were simply neutralized by UC switching everything. Those rolling lanes down the middle of the floor for Echenique and Midtgaard were similarly clogged.
The triple-switch defense described above that UC used when defending McDuffie left its defense briefly exposed because it usually resulted in a guard or a wing trying to defend a WSU center. But the Shockers struggled to identify those mismatches and exploit them.
Even if WSU’s center had inside position when the shot went up, UC sent its entire team to the defensive boards to help rebound. More times than not, WSU’s guards couldn’t make the jump shot to make the Bearcats pay.
“That defense definitely made you think,” Dennis said. “We worked on it in practice and I thought we got better with it, but we’re still too up-and-down. They play good defense, though.”
Too many of the Shockers’ screens, cuts and passes led nowhere, which led to too many possessions ending into forced shots at the end of the shot clock. The end result was WSU launching a season-high 35 three-pointers, which they converted just 25.7 percent, the fourth-lowest percentage on the season.
When WSU’s guards did happen to penetrate, UC’s defenders were escorting them straight to their supreme shot-blocker, Nysier Brooks, who finished with five blocks. Brooks affected many more, as WSU made just 10 of 36 two-point shots for a season-low 27.8 percent. The Shockers also missed 14 of 17 of their two-point jumpers.
“The things we do defensively is to try to make you score over (Brooks),” UC coach Mick Cronin said. “He’s improved so much at challenging shots without fouling.”
“We shot 27 percent for the game and 26 percent on threes,” Marshall said. “A lot of that is credited to their defense, but a lot of that is credited to us taking some bad ones. We took several shots that Brooks could block with either his armpit or his elbow. He didn’t even have to extend his arm. We had little guards shooting when they should have drawn the defense and then make the next play.”
5. Dexter Dennis came to play
WSU doesn’t want to settle for moral victories, but as Marshall pointed out, the Shockers were 13-point underdogs on the road and were not expected to compete.
It would have been easy for the Shockers to accept their fate when UC pulled away for a 62-43 lead with 6:31 remaining. Instead, WSU outscored UC 16-4 over the next six minutes to trim the deficit to 66-59 under a minute remaining.
Dennis was at the center of that charge. He drilled a three with 4:10 remaining at the start of the flurry, then hit an off-the-dribble jumper to cut UC’s lead to 64-56 with 2:08 left. And he hit two threes in the final minute to not let UC rest easy.
“We’re learning how to compete on the road,” Dennis said. “I think you can see we’re growing each and every day. I see that. There were some games early in the season where we kind of got down on ourselves and gave up. But (Sunday), we didn’t do that. We fought.”
While Dennis piled on 11 points in the final four minutes, he was a factor with his rebounding (career-high 13 boards) the entire game. The late flurry on offense only showed his teammates what he could do.
It’s that type of spark the Shockers will try to carry into their next road game at Tulsa on Wednesday.
“Now we’re hoping he can do that on a consistent basis,” McDuffie said. “With his skill set, Dexter could be doing that every single game. He’s getting so much better and really improving as a player. Now we just need him to do it consistently.”
One thing not to like
Wichita State’s starting five — Jamarius Burton, Samajae Haynes-Jones, Erik Stevenson, McDuffie and Echenique — combined to miss 37 of 45 shots and shoot a combined 17.8 percent.
Marshall has said previously that WSU will usually be in trouble if its two seniors don’t shoot well, and that was the case here. McDuffie and Haynes-Jones combined for 7-of-28 shooting. But that actually seems not so bad when considering the other three starters went 1 of 17.
“You’ve got to have more from your starting five,” Marshall said.