Only Houston has won more American Athletic Conference games than Wichita State in the final 11 games of the regular season entering this week’s AAC Tournament in Memphis.
After a 1-6 start, the Shockers won nine of their final 11 games to vault up to sixth in the standings. WSU’s 10-8 record and No. 6 seed in the conference tournament are both the best achieved by an AAC team that started 1-6 in conference play in its six-year existence.
Outside of the NCAA Tournament teams (Houston, Cincinnati, Central Florida, Temple), WSU poses an outside threat to steal the automatic bid when the conference tournament starts Thursday. The Shockers (17-13, 10-8) play East Carolina (10-20, 3-15) at approximately 9 p.m. Thursday at the FedExForum, with the game broadcast on ESPNU.
If WSU wins, it would have its rematch with Temple in Friday’s quarterfinals with Cincinnati potentially awaiting in Saturday’s semifinals.
“I think we can win every game in this tournament,” WSU senior Markis McDuffie said. “It’s going to take a lot of focus and we’re going to have to take it one possession at a time. But if we can get these guys to realize that, then we can make a lot of upsets.”
It’s clear WSU is one of the hottest teams in the American just by looking at its recent record. The Shockers were splendid on offense in wins over SMU and Tulsa at the start of their turnaround, then wore down East Carolina and Tulane on defense. WSU may have turned in its most complete performance in a 21-point drubbing of Tulsa at the Reynolds Center on Feb. 20.
But are the Shockers still improving in these victories as of late?
The last four games have all resulted in wins for WSU, but its offensive efficiency has taken a dip. The Shockers eked out a last-second win over Connecticut, won by double-digits over SMU and ECU despite shooting under 40 percent, then needed a buzzer-beater at 0-17 Tulane to escape with victory.
In those four games, WSU has shot a combined 39.4 percent from the field due to 27 percent shooting on three-pointers. It never scored more than 1.09 points per possession, as it had delivered its 19th, 17th, 13th and 12th most-efficient offensive outings to close the regular season.
“At this point, we don’t care if it’s pretty or not,” McDuffie said. “It’s win ugly or lose and go home.”
While the Shockers are operating far from their offensive peak on offense heading into the postseason, the fact that they’ve continued to win anyway can be viewed as a sign of progress.
In a season like this, where WSU coach Gregg Marshall and his staff had to transition essentially an entire roster to the Division I level, it probably feels like nitpicking a surging team about its efficiency when it’s now winning. After all, this is the same team that was drubbed by 32 points at Oklahoma and looked lifeless in a 20-point loss at UConn to start conference play 1-6.
Winning without playing your best is a mark of a good team, which WSU has more closely resembled since February.
“If you want to win a lot, you have to do that,” Marshall said. “There’s that old coaching adage that there will be five games you play way better than normal, five games worse than your normal and then who you are is that middle 20. We’ve actually won a couple of games recently where we didn’t play particularly well or we didn’t defend particularly well. But in the end, we found a way to gut it out on those nights. That’s very important.”
In that regard, WSU has certainly improved. No longer is winning and losing tied so closely with the play of its seniors, McDuffie and Samajae Haynes-Jones. The Shockers have become an overall better team with improved play and consistency from players such as Dexter Dennis, Jamarius Burton and Asbjorn Midtgaard.
What makes WSU’s turnaround even more impressive is that it has done it with McDuffie and Haynes-Jones not shooting well. During the last 11 games, McDuffie is shooting 38.3 percent from the field and 30.1 percent on threes, while Haynes-Jones is shooting 37.2 percent from the field and 30.3 percent on threes.
But the Shockers continue to win because more players are carrying more of the load. In that 11-game stretch, Jaime Echenique has provided a consistent 10.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks; Dennis is averaging 9.2 points and 6.2 rebounds and making 2.5 threes per game on 41 percent accuracy; Burton is averaging 7.8 points, 3.9 rebounds and 5.0 assists to only 1.4 turnovers; and Midtgaard has been solid in relief of Echenique, with averages of 5.5 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks.
“Earlier in the year, us freshman weren’t really playing how we’re supposed to be playing,” Dennis said. “(McDuffie) was stepping up and making those winning plays that coach talks about all the time that we knew nothing about. That’s what we’ve all been learning from him and Samajae.”
WSU has also been much improved defensively. After allowing 1.10 points per possession and seven teams to score at better than one point per possession in its 1-6 start, WSU has lowered that number to 0.97 points per possession with only three teams above one point per possession in its last 11 games.
In order to make a postseason run, WSU will likely have to go through Temple and Cincinnati, teams the Shockers are a combined 0-3 against. But WSU was a different team back then.
Marshall and the Shockers hope those lessons learned will benefit them this week in Memphis.
“First, you’ve got to teach them how to play and teach them what it takes to win,” Marshall said. “How to win the game within the game, all the little things they have to do to be successful at this level. How hard they’ve got to compete and then teach them how to be smart. We’re still not there. We’re playing pretty hard. But we don’t defend well enough. We’re still getting there.”