The formula Wichita State used to turn its season around last year was a simple, yet familiar one under Gregg Marshall.
It wasn’t as if Marshall and his coaching staff suddenly emphasized limiting turnovers, rebounding and defense when the Shockers used those three things to win 14 of their final 18 games after an 8-11 start.
With his youngest and most inexperienced team during his 12-year tenure at WSU, Marshall says it took three months into the regular season for WSU’s roster to understand the importance of limiting turnovers, rebounding and defense.
Once they did, they started winning.
“You can say it until you’re blue in the face, but they ultimately have to see it for themselves,” Marshall said. “And they did. If you cut down on turnovers, play great defense and rebound, you have a chance to win every night.”
The numbers paint a clear picture.
During WSU’s 8-11 start, the Shockers committed more than 13 turnovers per game with nearly 20% of their possessions ending in turnovers — a bottom-100 mark nationally. But during the 14-4 close, WSU trimmed its turnovers per game to 10.4 with a 15.1% turnover rate that would have ranked 16th in the country if maintained over a season.
In defensive rebounding, WSU was about average in keeping its opponents off the glass — but well below the top-10 standard Marshall has set at WSU. During its turnaround, WSU rebounded better than 75% of possible defensive rebounds, which would have finished top-30 nationally.
And on defense, it became harder to score on WSU. The Shockers went from allowing 1.02 points per possession to 0.96 during its close, while its 2-point percentage defense dropped from 49.7% to 43.4%, a mark that would have ranked WSU seventh in the country.
“Now we understand what the game is all about and how we can win easier,” WSU senior center Jaime Echenique said. “Defense, rebounding, not turning the ball over... those things are a huge deal here. I think coach (Marshall) has done a good job of making us understand how valuable we need to consider the ball.”
“It’s all about experience,” junior center Asbjorn Midtgaard said. “When you experience something and you have success with it, then you know that’s what you need to work on and keep improving. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Jamarius Burton was one of five true freshmen who played meaningful minutes for WSU last season. Most freshmen have the luxury of slowly carving out their own role in a program. Marshall had no other choice than to throw Burton, Erik Stevenson and Dexter Dennis into the fire.
The trio took their fair share of lumps early in the season. They could have let WSU’s 1-6 start in conference play shake their confidence. Instead, Burton says they viewed it as a lesson and slowly but surely began to understand Marshall’s message.
“You don’t really get it until you go through that fire and then you come out the other side and understand (Marshall) was absolutely right,” Burton said. “All of us returners went through that last season, so we know how we win now. We’ve got to get the new guys up to speed and allow them to go through the same thing and hopefully we’ll pick it up quicker this year.”
“We know that defense and rebounding will win games, but I also think we’re going to shoot it better this year,” Dennis added.
Dennis alluded to the reason why WSU is so optimistic it can carry over its success from February and March to the start of this season.
Even though WSU started winning, it wasn’t because it was making a high percentage of shots. In fact, WSU’s shooting percentages — WSU went from making 40.7% on field goals to 40.9% and from 30.3% on three-pointers to 31.7% — were nearly identical from its 8-11 start to its 14-4 close.
WSU believes it will be a better three-point shooting team this season with an improvement from Stevenson (28% last season) and the introduction of talented freshman guards in Tyson Etienne, Grant Sherfield and Noah Fernandes. WSU finished last season with an effective field goal percentage of 46.9%, which ranked 320th in the country.
If WSU was able to advance to the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament with such poor shooting, the Shockers are imagining the possibilities of how far limiting turnovers, rebounding and defense could take them if they just shoot average percentages this season.
The returners fully understand Marshall’s message. Now it’s their job to pass it on to the six newcomers this season.
“The biggest thing in my mind was understanding that defense is a team deal,” Dennis said. “You get better at it in practice by going at each other and being super competitive. I know if I’m pushing the guy across from me, then I’m making my teammate better and he’ll be better in a game because I’m going at him hard every day in practice.”