Who wins the battle between a pace-and-space offense against a grind-it-down defense?
That very well spell the winner between No. 6 seed Wichita State (22-14) and No. 5 seed Lipscomb (28-7) in their 6 p.m. Central game Tuesday (ESPN) in the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament.
“That’s probably going to decide the game,” Lipscomb coach Casey Alexander said. “That’s very important for us to be able to play the way that we play. We need tempo and aggression. We have to play aggressively if we’re going to be any good.”
According to KenPom.com’s adjusted tempo, Lipscomb plays at the 14th-fastest pace in the country. The average Lipscomb possession lasts less than 16 seconds.
WSU is the first NIT team to sweep the top three seeds in a region, but Lipscomb presents a new challenge. The Shockers have to be weary of turnovers that could spring fast breaks for Lipscomb. Even a poor shot could serve as a de facto fast break.
“You have to be ready to be in sprint mode getting back and talking and pointing and trying to level the basketball off,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “When you do that, you haven’t even got half of the battle accomplished. Then they start dicing you up with their cuts. They do such a good job moving and screening and back-cutting.”
The half-court system Lipscomb runs isn’t that dissimilar from Furman, the team WSU beat in the opening round two weeks ago. Just like Furman, Lipscomb has a savvy passer for a center who is a dangerous low-post threat and surrounds him with four capable shooters.
But unlike Furman, Lipscomb has its best player on the perimeter. Garrison Mathews, a 6-foot-5 sharp-shooting senior, has averaged at least 20 points for three straight seasons. He’s connecting on more than three three-pointers per game on 41-percent accuracy.
WSU will likely turn to freshman Dexter Dennis to try to contain Mathews. After recording a combined nine blocks in WSU’s last two games against high-major opponents, Dennis has proven himself more than capable of the challenge.
“The best thing I can do is give everything I have and be the best I can be and just make it tough on him,” Dennis said. “Sometimes when you play really, really good players they make tough shots. The best thing you can do is not let it get you down and just focus on making the next one even more difficult.”
Mathews is entering the game with the mindset that WSU will make things difficult on Lipscomb. He isn’t expecting Lipscomb to be able to run its 15-seconds-or-less offense, or at least not as much as it usually does.
“We have to be tough and be willing to grind out long, 30-second possessions,” Mathews said. “We know they’re going to make it tough on us and they’re not going to give us anything easy. We have to buckle down and not force things when it gets tough.”
WSU can find a good blueprint for success in handling Lipscomb’s tempo challenge with how Liberty played the Bisons in the final two meetings of the season. Liberty beat Lipscomb 74-66 on the road Feb. 13 in a game that featured 69 possessions, then once again won on Lipscomb’s home floor in a 74-68 win in the Atlantic Sun championship game on March 10 in a game that featured 64 possessions.
The Shockers are certainly comfortable playing at a faster pace, but they know a game with more than 70 possessions will favor Lipscomb.
“Our main thing is to try to slow them down because they’re a really good team in transition,” WSU junior Jaime Echenique. “They have players who can push the ball every play. We need to try to slow them down a little bit and make them try to play our game. We don’t want to play their game at their speed.”
But that possession count is a crucial number to Lipscomb. The Bisons have only been limited to under 70 possessions five times this season, while 10 of WSU’s last 17 games have featured less than 70 possessions.
“We know we’ve got to win the pace battle,” Lipscomb point guard Jordan Cooper said. “We’ve got to play our game, no matter how fast or slow the opposing team is playing at. We just have to play smarter.”
More possessions equals more shots, which in turns favors the better-shooting team. There’s no denying that advantage goes to Lipscomb, a team that ranks in the top-20 of effective field-goal percentage compared to a WSU team that ranks No. 314 in the country.
But the Shockers have proven they don’t need to shoot even close to average to be able to win. That’s because the team has become a throwback defend-and-rebound team like Marshall’s previous squads.
That’s the formula Marshall plans on using once again this week in New York.
“Earlier in the year if we missed a couple of shots, we would sulk and get our dauber down and we wouldn’t defend and rebound the way we should,” Marshall said. “You have to get to the next play in college basketball. There’s so many plays and not every one of them is going to go your way.
“The one thing you have to have as a constant in this program for us to be successful is you have to defend and rebound every night. When you do that, you can still win shooting 42 percent and 30 percent from three. When the ball goes in the basket and we get a favorable whistle and get to the line a few times, we can beat anyone when we have the defense and rebounding in our back pocket.”
NO. 6 WICHITA STATE VS. NO. 5 LIPSCOMB
Records: WSU 22-14, LU 28-7
When: 6 p.m. Central time Tuesday
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York City
Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM