In the lexicon of Wichita State basketball coach Gregg Marshall, big men guard the rim by either blocking a shot or building a wall.
His past two WSU teams swatted away shots at record rates. This season’s team, less experienced and less physical, might take time to find its identity.
“I think we can block some shots,” Marshall said. “It just depends on the play. They’ve got to decide what they’re going to do — they can’t do both. You’ve either got to try to block the shot or take a charge. Sometimes they get caught between.”
WSU plays Memphis on Tuesday in Sioux Falls, S.D., facing a team with a talented front line as the Shockers continue to develop a defensive identity. While the new big men figure out NCAA Division I basketball, they can rely on three tenacious defenders on the perimeter to help. Making that split-second decision to leap or maintain position, and try to draw a charge and obscure the shooter’s vision with raised arms, is part of the learning curve.
“At some moments, you play too aggressive … and it ends up being a foul,” freshman forward Rashard Kelly said. “Some moments, you don’t see the play fast enough. When you see the ball, it makes things easier to be in the right position.”
The Shockers averaged a school-record 5.1 blocked shots last season, breaking the mark of 4.5 held by the 2013 and 1980 teams. Those teams featured some of WSU’s most prolific rim-protectors — Ehimen Orupke blocked 56 shots and Carl Hall 55 in 2013, Kadeem Coleby 45 last season and Antoine Carr 40 in 1980. The 35-1 Shockers backstopped their defense with five players who blocked 20 or more shots for a record 184 blocks. The Final Four Shockers relied on Orukpe, Hall and Cleanthony Early, and blocked 177.
The Shockers this season are still big and athletic by most standards. But there might not be a dominant eraser as in past seasons because this is a younger, smaller team. It starts 6-foot-7 Darius Carter at center — 28 blocks as a junior — and 6-4 Evan Wessel at power forward. Junior transfer Bush Wamukota (6-11) is WSU’s tallest player and is not a shot-blocker in the mold of Orukpe.
In Friday’s opener, WSU blocked four shots and its interior defense was rarely tested because its guards disrupted the Aggies offense with tenacious ball pressure.
“When they move, I’m moving with them,” Kelly said. “You don’t want to let them down, by letting up an easy basket.”
Memphis’ strength is its frontcourt. Junior Shaq Goodwin (6-9, 228 pounds) averaged 9.4 points and 5.5 rebounds last season. He finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds in a 74-70 overtime exhibition loss to NCAA Division II Christian Brothers on Wednesday. Senior Calvin Godfrey (6-8, 233) is a transfer who averaged 12.9 points and 8.8 rebounds at Southern last season to earn All-SWAC honors. As a freshman at Iowa State in 2010-11, he averaged 5.7 points and 5.4 rebounds. Sophomore Austin Nichols (6-8, 228) scored 17 points in the exhibition.
The Shockers will counter with Wessel, who is prepared to spend the season battling players two and three inches taller.
“It’s a challenge I like and you’ve got to work on position and playing great defense,” he said. “It’s a different kind of footwork (than on the perimeter). On the perimeter, you’ve got to move your feet maybe a little quicker and there’s more running. It’s more fighting for position, especially when I’m undersized.”
Wessel won those battles in Friday’s opener by using his quickness and strength to keep the ball away from New Mexico State’s forwards. While he may be shorter than most power forwards, he is strong enough to hold a spot in the lane.
“He’s got physical strength and toughness,” Marshall said. “He’s using his brain to figure out how to be effective and be in the right position.”
New Mexico State, 71-54 losers, scored a mere 12 points in the paint and starting big men Remi Barry and Tshilidze Nephawe combined to shoot 4 for 10 and score 12 points with nine rebounds. The Aggies rarely got the ball to their big men, in part because WSU guards Tekele Cotton, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet harassed the guards into turnovers and ruined the rythmn of the offense, much like a pass rush in football.
“The others guys help a lot — if they’re in the right position it’s tough to get it into the post,” Wessel said. “When the perimeter defenders are pressuring the ball and getting weak-side help, it makes it very difficult to get it into the post.”
Memphis’ struggles against Christian Brothers, a Memphis school, started with turnovers, an issue that revealed itself in a closed scrimmage against Saint Louis. The Shockers forced 20 turnovers by New Mexico State and scored 26 points off those stolen passes and loose balls.
“We had over 20 turnovers against Saint Louis, and we had 21 turnovers (Wednesday),” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said after the game. “Neither team is a pressing team. They were just unforced errors.”
Memphis vs. No. 11 Wichita State
Memphis statistics from 2013-14
Memphis: Memphis coach Josh Pastner wasn’t pleased with his team’s pace in last week’s exhibition game. Since he is breaking in new guards, it may take time to play the way he wants. “In my six years here, this is the slowest I’ve ever seen our team play,” he said. “That is something that we cannot be. We cannot be a slow team. We just can’t. Because we’re so effective with Shaq (Goodwin) and Austin (Nichols), it’s too easy for teams to pack it inside if we’re playing slow because there is a question mark with our shooting.” … Johnson is a transfer from Vanderbilt who averaged 13.5 points and 3.6 assists in 2012-13. Vanderbilt suspended him from school in July 2013 and he transferred to Memphis. Crawford is a redshirt freshman. … The Tigers made 5 of 22 three-pointers in the exhibition loss. Last season, they shot 33 percent from three-point range and lost their top two outside shooters, Michael Dixon Jr. and Chris Crawford.
Wichita State: The Shockers went 0 for 11 from three-point range in Friday’s win over New Mexico State, snapping a streak of 267 games with a three. WSU went 0 for 5 in a 2006 win over Kennesaw State … Cotton led WSU with 17 points against New Mexico State. Baker added 16. C Shaquille Morris came off the bench to score nine points and grab four rebounds in 12 minutes … Memphis leads the series 10-9 and won the most recent meeting, 85-73 in 1983 in Memphis. The teams were both members of the Missouri Valley Conference from 1967-73.
Memphis vs. No. 11 Wichita State
When: 1 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Sanford Pentagon, Sioux Falls, S.D.
Records: UM 0-0, WSU 1-0
Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM