Key statistics: The Shockers held Bradley to 17 baskets and forced 23 turnovers. It is the second straight game WSU’s defense dominated to the tune of a negative basket-to-assist ratio and the fourth time this season.
The Braves, especially in the first half, couldn’t deal with WSU’s presses and couldn’t run their offense. If they didn’t turn the ball over, they were hoisting bad shots late in the shot clock. They went through a 5:26 scoring drought in the first half. They didn’t score until 16:11 remained in the second half after committing four turnovers and missing their lone shot attempt in five possessions.
“We tried to simulate (pressure) as best we could in practice,” Bradley coach Brian Wardle said. “Obviously, it’s difficult to simulate some times.”
How the game turned: Wardle is embarking on a difficult journey, the kind few coaches are bold enough to try. He has 10 freshmen on his 12-man active roster.
Some coaches try to rebuild while winning a few games. With two players back from last season (sophomore Donte Thomas and senior Ka’Darryl Bell), Bradley is going all the way with its rebuild. If it were an NBA team, it would be the clearest case of tanking for the No. 1 draft spot in league history.
Six players from last season’s team left in April after meeting with Wardle. Two more left later in the spring. Leading scorer Warren Jones was dismissed from the team in August because of a violation of team rules. In October, center Mike Shaw quit basketball because of chronic back pain.
It is hard to judge where the Braves are because of all the freshmen. Without a few experienced players to organize and lead, the freshmen are on their own and that’s an impossible task. Shockers fans got a good look at what happens when freshmen are asked to play major minutes before they’re ready in the AdvoCare Invitational and they had much more support than Bradley’s do.
“I told the team at halftime ‘Your character is revealed and we are going to compete,’” Wardle said. “I’f you miss a blockout, you’re going to come out.’ I had to do it four times in the second half. I said ‘We’re going to get better at some things that are going to benefit this program in the long haul.’”
I’d like to say I saw some sure future stars among Bradley’s freshmen. Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye had some good moments. So did Scottie James. It is a group that could really use an experienced point guard to bring out their talents. The best freshman on the floor was WSU’s Markis McDuffie, who does benefit from strong support.
Wardle took the steps he thought necessary to build the program he wants with his players. His first season is the time to do it. It will be interesting to see how many of those 10 freshmen turn into good MVC players in the coming years.
“There are some wins within the loss, and we’ve got to continue to find those,” Wardle said.
Records: WSU 8-5, 2-0 MVC; BU 2-13, 0-2
Stat that might surprise you: WSU guard Fred VanVleet had four turnovers, two of which were charging fouls. A third was a lob pass that Shaq Morris didn’t catch and the WSU coaching staff judged it a good pass.
The second charging call sparked coach Gregg Marshall’s technical foul after he argued with referee Bo Boroski. Marshall thought the play was close enough that VanVleet, an All-American, deserved the benefit of the doubt. Boroski said he doesn’t pay attention to who he is calling fouls on — not his job to worry.
The replay revealed it shouldn’t have been a charge, regardless of star status.
Stat that won’t surprise you: WSU’s bench outscored Bradley’s 45-24.
Freshman watch: McDuffie scored 14 points and led the Shockers with six rebounds in 19 minutes.
He also made one of the game’s prettiest assists, a pass through the Bradley defense to Rashard Kelly for a first-half layup. McDuffie was near the three-point line and Kelly lurked near the lane.
“I faked it a little bit and turned my eye to the corner guy,” McDuffie said. “He was hiding out back there. I had to move the defense.”
Guard Ty Taylor played 10 minutes in the second half, his longest outing since Florida.
Why they’re All-Americans: Quiet day for VanVleet and Baker. Marshall’s main goal was to protect VanVleet’s hamstring and keep Baker from taking too many falls. Their peak minutes will be needed this week.
Rotation watch: Guard Conner Frankamp went 2 for 4 from three-point range and is 8 of 19 (42.1 percent) in his past four games. He also had two assists and no turnovers.
With Frankamp, McDuffie and Anton Grady coming off the bench, the Shockers are in good shape scoring when the starters sit.
Can that group maintain the defensive pressure? The dropoff needs to diminish when WSU plays good teams. Frankamp looks more aggressive contesting shots. His angles and physical play fighting through screens remains a work in progress. All three are in their first season playing WSU defense, so there is room for improvement.
▪ Morris and Grady combined for 19 points on 7 of 9 shooting, again giving WSU a solid scoring option in the lane. Even if it came against overmatched freshmen, it is important for WSU to make opponents guard their big men. The Shockers shot a season-high 55.1 percent from the field.
“Coach has been telling everybody in film we need to play inside-out,” Morris said. “That’s definitely helping us a lot more than what we were doing earlier in the season, which is why I believe our percentages are (improving).”
VanVleet makes it a habit to go to Morris early in the game to get him going and force defenses to recognize the inside threat.
“When I touch the ball, first off, I’m seeing the floor and looking for teammates before I turn and try to have a chance to score,” Morris said. “When you get the ball inside, there’s more opportunities for everybody.”
Wardle knew what was coming. Two MVC games revealed where offenses will attack his team.
“They’re going to go inside, inside, inside,” he said. “We gave up too many angles and they overpowered us in the paint. Bottom line, we’ve got freshman bigs and we’ve got to figure out how to slow people down when they do that.”
Next up: vs. Evansville (13-2, 2-0 MVC), 7 p.m. Wednesday (Cox Kansas, KEYN, FM-103.7)
The Aces lead the MVC in scoring (81.0), scoring margin (plus-12.8), shooting (52.4 percent), rebound margin (plus-7.0), blocks (4.4), assists (21.1) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.6).
Soft schedule aside, Evansville is an accomplished, experienced team. Even in losses to Providence and Arkansas, the Aces shot better than 49 percent from the field.
How it handles WSU’s experienced, accomplished defense may decide the MVC title.