It was arguably the most important basketball game that’s been played at Koch Arena, a top-15 showdown between No. 11 Wichita State and No. 10 Northern Iowa that decided the Missouri Valley Conference championship on the final day of the regular season.
ESPN’s College GameDay even brought the national spotlight to the MVC’s first winner-take-all finale between ranked teams since 1951, which WSU won with a near-flawless offensive performance in a 74-60 victory over UNI on February 28, 2015 to secure the Shockers back-to-back conference titles for the first time in 50 years.
It was a classic performance by Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, as the duo combined for 30 points, 14 assists and no turnovers in 75 minutes for Wichita State. VanVleet and Baker scored or assisted on 77% (57 of 74) of WSU’s offense, which pumped out 1.33 points per possession for by far the most-efficient performance against UNI’s defense that entire season.
The Eagle examined game film and picked out noteworthy clips to show exactly how VanVleet and Baker powered the Shockers to the championship in the second edition of Shocker Classics.
This rematch had been brewing since UNI had pummeled the Shockers 70-54 in Cedar Falls, Iowa, a month earlier. Both teams entered with a 16-1 record in Valley play, as the Panthers had ripped off 16 straight victories after losing 52-49 at Evansville in their opener and the Shockers had taken care of business in seven straight games following their loss to UNI.
This was the junior seasons for VanVleet and Baker and the senior night for Tekele Cotton and Darius Carter, while Seth Tuttle (15.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists) was the eventual MVC Player of the Year that season for UNI.
The national rankings (and the ESPN spotlight from GameDay) made this one of the highest-profile games in Valley history. More than 6,000 fans filled Koch Arena and watched Jay Williams put on a Ron Baker wig and pick the Shockers, only to return hours later for a 1 p.m. tip-off to create an environment so rowdy that it still tops the list to this day for many of those still with the program.
We’ll pick it up after 11 minutes have past with UNI holding a 20-16 lead. That’s when the Shockers reel off seven unanswered points in 70 seconds to grab the lead back. We’ll take a look at two plays that stand out because they reveal each team’s defensive strategies.
It’s clear by how UNI’s defense plays in the clip above that they have concluded they can live with WSU freshman Zach Brown shooting from the outside. Brown’s defender helps cover Bush Wamukota, WSU’s rolling big man, and pretends like Brown doesn’t exist even when Cotton passes to him.
It’s hard to fault UNI: Brown hadn’t made a three-pointer in two months and only attempted five during that 16-game span. But this is an example of WSU rising to the occasion, as Brown swishes the three and puts the Shockers ahead.
After Tuttle torched WSU for 29 points in the first meeting, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall and his staff had devised a game plan that focused on turning Tuttle into a passer. Every time Tuttle received the ball in the post and put it on the floor, WSU’s guards were instructed to scrape down and try to force Tuttle to kick out.
Baker and VanVleet each excelled at scraping down and on the ensuing possession, Baker showed why by perfectly timing his help defense to knock the ball loose from Tuttle to start a run-out for WSU that he finishes for the layup and 23-20 lead. WSU was so good at turning its defense into offense and this was a perfect example of that.
After a media timeout, WSU extended the run to 14-3 capped by an Evan Wessel three-pointer for a 30-23 lead with 4:48 remaining. But it was the superb passing of VanVleet, captured in the clips below, that ignited the run. Part of VanVleet’s genius was on display in the first clip, where VanVleet uses his eyes to look off UNI’s defenders to create a lane for Wamukota to receive the dump-off pass for an easy lay-in. The play features the feel, timing and off-the-charts basketball IQ that made VanVleet so good running WSU’s offense.
WSU drilled 11 threes in the game, one off its season-best mark. Most of them were in rhythm and open, a result of good offense, but a couple — like the two shown below — were difficult shots the Shockers knocked down.
There might have been some senior-day magic going on when Cotton, a 29% three-point shooter, swishes a 30-footer to beat the shot clock. And then there wasn’t much else UNI could have done the following possession when VanVleet crossed up Paul Jesperson and stepped back for a rainbow triple just over the reach of the 6-foot-6 junior. And just like that, a four-point game turned into a 38-26 halftime lead for WSU.
The Shockers finished No. 19 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency that season, largely because they had two elite passers in VanVleet and Baker who could generate good looks on offense. But sometimes you need players to step up, create their own looks and knock tough shots down. VanVleet and Baker were also those guys for WSU.
“The crowd was so loud, it comes to a point when you really don’t think it can get any louder,” Baker said. “It’s like a screeching noise. In the moment, it’s really fun and enjoyable.”
With VanVleet and Baker playing their ‘A’ games to the delight of the crowd, WSU’s lead grew to 18 points in the first six minutes out of halftime. And the Shockers took a 51-33 lead on one of Marshall’s bread-and-butter plays, a beautiful yet simple set that featured a cross screen between big men. It was up to Wessel to set an effective screen and he did, which opened the way for Baker to hit Shaquille Morris wide open underneath the goal for a slam dunk.
You know it was pretty when Marshall himself gave a Tiger Woods fist pump on the sideline.
But this was a 31-win Northern Iowa team that wasn’t going to go down without a fight. Through 28 minutes, WSU’s defense had held Tuttle to seven points and just two field goal attempts. But WSU’s strategy to use its help defense to force Tuttle to pass backfired, as Tuttle found the open shooters and UNI drilled four straight three-pointers (three on assists by Tuttle) to trim WSU’s lead to 53-49 with still more than nine minutes remaining.
“They were playing so well,” Marshall said. “We just had to tighten up who we were going to double off of and who we were not going to double off of. We finally got a couple stops.”
Faced with adversity, it was an unlikely source of offense who stepped up to deliver for the Shockers in their time of need. Wessel entered the game averaging 4.2 points and shooting 33% on his three-pointers.
As it did with Brown, UNI treated Wessel as a non-threat on the perimeter and chose to have Wessel’s defender cheat off and clog the lane. When WSU needed him most, Wessel rose to the occasion and made UNI pay for helping off by draining back-to-back three-pointers to restore the cushion to 63-55.
If those treys weren’t the dagger, then what came next certainly was. Marshall went back to one of his best sets and WSU executed it to perfection. It started with VanVleet passing to Baker on the right wing, then Darius Carter moves like he’s about to set a ball screen, only for Baker to reject the screen and drive baseline.
This is important because it distracts UNI’s defense and catches them flat-footed and ball-watching when Baker picks up his dribble. That gives WSU the element of surprise when Carter turns around and really sets a screen for VanVleet to come back to the wing for a wide open catch-and-shoot three off the pass from Baker that he buries for a 66-56 lead with 4:28 remaining.
And then for the exclamation point for one of WSU’s biggest regular-season wins of the Marshall era, VanVleet found Cotton streaking behind the defense and the senior throws down one of his finest dunks, a ferocious windmill, for one last highlight at Koch Arena.
WSU accomplished its mission in limiting Tuttle’s scoring, but he still finished with an excellent game: 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting, seven rebounds and six assists (all went for three-pointers). UNI even pumped out a pretty good 1.09 points per possession, but it was no match for WSU’s top-tier execution on this night.
The Shockers delivered one of their most efficient outings of the season, making 46% of their threes (11 of 24) en route to 1.35 points per possession — by far the highest mark UNI allowed all season.
WSU picked up the memorable win on this night, but the Shockers were unable to follow it up with a tournament championship at Arch Madness. WSU was upset 65-62 by Illinois State in the MVC tournament semifinals, which prevented a third and final meeting between these two heavyweights. Still, that didn’t stop both sides from feeling like the most important game was the one at Koch Arena.
“You have this kind of season, you want a championship,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said after the game. “The reason we’re ranked 10th and 11th in the country is because we’ve got really good basketball teams. The entire country was able to see that today.”
While that opened the door for UNI to win the MVC tournament championship in St. Louis and earn a higher NCAA Tournament seed (No. 5 compared to WSU’s No. 7 seed), it was the Shockers who advanced further in the postseason. While UNI was rolled in the second round by a Louisville team that reached the Elite Eight, the Shockers beat Indiana and Kansas to reach the Sweet 16 before ultimately falling to Notre Dame to cap a 30-5 season.