A day after its coach labeled Wichita State “not a good passing team,” an assertion supported by statistics, the Shockers registered their best passing game of the season in an 81-60 victory over Tulsa at the Reynolds Center late Wednesday.
These Shockers, which had the lowest assist rate in the Gregg Marshall era, logged a season-best 24 assists on 80 percent of made baskets. For reference, last season’s WSU team, which finished third in the country in assist rate, only did that three times. Jamarius Burton became the first true freshman in decades to finish with 10 assists, while Ricky Torres dished seven assists with no turnovers off the bench.
These Shockers, which were the worst three-point shooting team in the Marshall era, tied the school record with 15 three-pointers on 45.5-percent accuracy. Freshman Dexter Dennis made a career-high six, while Samajae Haynes-Jones, who was shooting less than 25 percent beyond the arc in conference play, drilled 5 of 10 threes.
So how did WSU (13-12, 6-7 AAC) do it?
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A lot of the performance had to do with WSU finally making shots and Tulsa’s defensive breakdowns, but the Shockers also helped themselves with better tempo and better precision passing.
Wichita State has never been a strong shooting team, but that has especially been true this season when the Shockers take jumpers off the dribble. Per Synergy, WSU ranked in the 27th percentile in the country in off-the-dribble jumpers and was making just 30.5 percent of those shots.
Those dribbles were replaced by passes against Tulsa and the ball movement paid off in a big way. All 15 of WSU’s three-pointers were assisted, with all 15 makes coming on catch-and-shoot looks — meaning there was no dribbling involved.
“Every shooter is better when you put it on the money so they can get their feet set and shoot the right shot,” WSU senior Markis McDuffie said. “Sometimes when it’s low or too high, it can affect your release point or with the timing of the shot.”
The value of an on-time and on-target pass can not be overstated. In the past, WSU’s ball handlers seemed hesitant to make a mistake and that affected their reaction time in making reads. Even if they threw a pass to the right player, that second of hesitation allowed the defense the time to recover.
On Wednesday, there was no hesitation among WSU’s ball handlers. They whipped the ball around the perimeter without reservation. The passes were on-time and on-point, which instilled confidence into the shooters.
“It’s just good to work on something for so long and then see the results after you work on it,” Torres said. “We were grinding it out there for awhile and we knew passing was an issue for us. I felt like (Wednesday) we didn’t hesitate. We saw the open receiver and we made the play.”
WSU was also operating at a much better tempo, which was evident by a play in the game’s first four minutes. It’s a simple set that features McDuffie setting a cross screen to try to free Jaime Echenique up on the right block, but it requires perfect timing along the perimeter to make it work.
Haynes-Jones starts by handing the ball off to Burton on the right wing, then sprinting across the court. Burton passes to Dennis at the top and he ball-fakes as if he is going to rotate the ball to Haynes-Jones, only to whip it back to Burton on the right wing. The timing of Dennis’ pass is crucial because he has to get the ball in Burton’s hands right before McDuffie sets his screen down low.
Sure enough, Burton receives the pass just as Echenique comes off the screen. One second later and the basket isn’t there, the same if the pass is too high or low. But Burton places the pass high and right, which allows Echenique to turn immediately over his left shoulder and finish over the lagging defense at the rim.
“I feel like we kept the ball moving and we did a good job of finding the open man,” Burton said. “It gave us some confidence on the defensive end, too. Ball movement played a big role in the win.”
A little more than half of WSU’s makes from beyond the arc could be classified as a contested shot. Tulsa was either in the vicinity with a hand up when the shot went up or made a strong contest late, but WSU, more specifically Dennis and Haynes-Jones, triumphed by rising up and shooting confidently over the defense.
No one is playing more confidently than Dennis right now, as the 6-foot-5 freshman from Louisiana has drilled 10 three-pointers in his last two games. That type of confidence is what WSU has been lacking from its shooters, but Wednesday could signify a change in attitude moving forward.
“I’m believing in myself, in my abilities and what I can do to help this team,” Dennis said.
While some of WSU’s 24 assists can be chalked up to hot shooting, a good portion of those assists were from precision passing, something WSU has recently lacked.
Burton and Torres excelled in keeping the ball moving. Many of their assists stemmed from simply making a pass to keep the ball moving, as Tulsa’s defense struggled to locate shooters on the perimeter. But then there were other guards who stepped up to make passes.
Haynes-Jones delivered a perfectly-weighted pass to give Echenique a basket. Dennis lobbed one over a Tulsa defender fronting Echenique that took the big man straight to the rim for another easy basket. If the shooting was contagious on WSU, so was the passing.
“I feel like we were all doing a good job of keeping the ball moving,” Burton said.
After watching WSU’s guards drive recklessly into the heart of Cincinnati’s defense, only to have eight shots blocked and many more altered for bad misses, Marshall pleaded with his guards to make those same drives but to instead look to kick out.
When Torres and Burton were able to dribble penetrate the interior of Tulsa’s defense, this time the duo kept their dribble alive, waited to collapse the defense and kicked out to a waiting shooter.
The end result was WSU shredding Tulsa’s defense for 1.17 points per possession, the highest the Golden Hurricane have allowed on their home court this season.
“Those guys were tremendous against the matchup zone, which has given teams fits all year,” Marshall said. “We were able to attack it very, very well. We did a wonderful job of being under control, executing our stuff and in the end, we were able to get pretty good shots with good passing and precision.”