The guiding principles of Wichita State men’s basketball scheduling are to obtain non-conference games that support an NCAA Tournament at-large resume and to play the best teams the Shockers can beat.
Well-played on both accounts.
The 11th-ranked Shockers (8-1) finish their non-conference schedule at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii next week, starting with Monday’s game against Loyola Marymount (3-6).
While dips by Nebraska and Colorado removed some of the power potential from the eight-team field, WSU should continue to grab favor from the statistical and computer calculations with a strong week. Either Nebraska (6-3) or host Hawaii (7-3) awaits on Tuesday, with the Huskers the preferred opponent for RPI benefits. Thursday’s final round offers the possibility of a matchup with Colorado (6-3), coached by former Shocker assistant Tad Boyle, or George Washington (6-3). Both are ranked in the top 100 of the RPI.
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Just don’t speak of DePaul, a team WSU defeated in tournaments the past two seasons and is plummeting in the RPI after three straight losses. DePaul (6-4) opens against Colorado on Monday.
So far, WSU’s schedule is performing almost perfectly.
WSU’s power ranking (RPI), according to warrrennolan.com, is No. 3. Its strength of schedule also ranks highly, ranging from No. 5 (warrennolan.com) to No. 7 (ESPN.com) to No. 35 (kenpom.com). While WSU played one ranked team (an overtime loss at No. 14 Utah), it scheduled wisely and wins over under-performing teams such as Memphis and New Mexico State remain helpful. The summer addition of a game against Seton Hall appears to be a significant help, with the Pirates ranked No. 18 in the RPI. They are 9-1 with seven games remaining against schools ranked in the top 50 and seven more in the top 100.
“(The Shockers) haven't played many dogs, and road games against Utah and Detroit are like home games against a top 5 and top 30 team respectively,” wrote Ken Pomeroy, whose website uses statistics to analyze college basketball, in an email.
Entering Saturday’s games, WSU opponents combined for a 46-23 record against NCAA Division I opponents. Absent are low-level schools that can ruin an RPI. WSU scheduled NCAA Division II Newman, which doesn’t count on RPI calculations, when it needed an early November game, instead of an overmatched NCAA Division I opponent.
WSU will need every bit of RPI power for January and February, when playing a Missouri Valley Conference schedule that includes four teams ranked No. 275 or worse.
The Shockers are more concerned with the on-the-court experiences from a series of non-conference tests. They played games at Utah and Detroit and trailed by double-digits in both before rallying. They played teams with more size and more athletic ability. They played teams with good defensive credentials who threw a variety of game-plans at them. The Shockers tested themselves, even if they defeated New Mexico State, Memphis, Tulsa and Saint Louis (all 2014 NCAA Tournament teams) by 15 or more points.
“It’s good that we’re not blowing teams out and we’re having close games,” WSU senior Darius Carter said. “We see what we have to do to come through in big games. We see who we can have in the game and who’s going to run everything right.”
Tuesday’s 53-52 win over Alabama (RPI No. 42) provided another strong learning experience, one that wasn’t a success until the final second when a three-pointer missed and the Shockers celebrated a 13-1 closing run.
“They gave us everything we could want and more,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “It should help us. We continued to fight. We find a way, and that’s what these guys have done. They almost found a way against Utah.”
Playing good teams expose problems and two stand out.
WSU’s bench, featuring eight scholarship players with no previous NCAA Division I game experience, is inconsistent. The fact junior-college transfers Tevin Glass and Bush Wamukota are playing little means the bulk of WSU’s reserve minutes come from freshmen. That is a start contrast to last season, in which seniors Nick Wiggins, Kadeem Coleby and Chadrack Lufile, Carter as a junior transfer, and sophomore Evan Wessel supplied most of the reserve minutes.
That depth may be tested in Hawaii if Wessel, who injured his right foot or ankle in the win over Alabama, is sidelined or limited. The Shockers departed from Wichita on Thursday morning, but encountered travel delays and spent Thursday night with an unplanned layover in Los Angeles. They departed for Hawaii on Friday afternoon and did not provide an update on Wessel’s injury.
Regardless of his status, WSU will play three games in four days after a long trip, circumstances that could push the endurance of the experienced players.
WSU’s inaccuracy from the foul line is also uncharacteristic, and also a potential problem. The Shockers shot 8 of 17 (47.1 percent) from the line against Alabama, dropping their season percentage to 63.1 percent. WSU shot 72 percent or better in four of the previous five seasons, including a program-best 74.8 percent in 2011-12.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to get to the line and knock them in,” Marshall said.
The problems at the line begin with the veterans, most of whom aren’t matching previous accuracy.
Fred VanVleet (73.3 percent) made 83 percent of his foul shots last season. Ron Baker (76.7) made 84.2 percent. Carter (54.8 percent) and Tekele Cotton (50) are also down from last season at the line. Wessel (57.1) has attempted only seven free throws. While the Shockers routinely shoot foul shots during practice, often in between scrimmage sessions, players also know it is their duty to work on that skill outside of practice.
“It’s something we’ve got to solve on our own,” Cotton said. “We’re always in there shooting free throws, every day, we’ve just got to bring it to the actual games and put the ball in the hole.”
Despite a tough schedule, inexperience and yips at the foul line, the Shockers are 8-1 and on track for another favorable seed in the NCAA Tournament. The combination of smart scheduling and a team prepared for the challenge is paying off.
Diamond Head Classic
A look at the field for the tournament that begins Monday in Honolulu, Hawaii.
No. 11 Wichita State
RPI: No. 3
So far: The Shockers rely on a strong backcourt and the surging production of center Darius Carter, who is averaging 16.6 points and 9.6 rebounds the past three games.
RPI: No. 278
So far: The Lions are losers of four straight, to Cal Irvine, Southern Cal, Northern Arizona and Stanford.
▪ WSU vs. LMU, 10 p.m. Monday (ESPNU)
RPI: No. 117
So far: The Huskers committed 137 turnovers while handing out 101 assists.
RPI: No. 205
So far: Hawaii won three in a row before a 90-70 loss to BYU in which it shot 5 of 18 from three-point range.
▪ Nebraska vs. Hawaii, following WSU-LMU (ESPNU)
RPI: No. 96
So far: The Buffaloes are shooting 39.7 percent from three-point range.
RPI: No. 187
So far: The Blue Demons bring a three-game losing streak to Hawaii, including defeats by Illinois State (78-72) and Oregon State (90-59).
▪ Colorado vs. DePaul, 3:30 p.m. Monday (ESPNU)
RPI: No. 248
So far: Evansville outscored the Bobcats 12-0 in overtime Thursday to win 81-69.
RPI: No. 41
So far: The Colonials lost to Virginia, Seton Hall and Penn State.
▪ Ohio vs. George Washington, 1:30 p.m. Monday (ESPNU)