In this age of advanced basketball statistics and frame-by-frame film review, nobody at Wichita State has counted the number of screens defenders must run through to chase D.J. Balentine.
“Hundreds,” coach Gregg Marshall said.
That might seem conservative to the players who must wind their way through a maze of bodies to track Balentine, Evansville’s senior guard and the NCAA’s active scoring leader. The Aces (13-2, 2-0 Missouri Valley Conference) play at WSU (8-5, 2-0) on Wednesday in a early showdown that will shape the conference race.
WSU will leverage one of its biggest assets — depth — in trying to limit Balentine’s open shots. Several Shockers will run with him, a list that starts with Ron Baker and Zach Brown and could include Fred VanVleet, Evan Wessel and Markis McDuffie. All of them need to be locked in to shadow Balentine, while not losing focus of responsibilities to help on other Aces.
Balentine is also a skilled passer who can hurt defenses that focus too much on him. He averages 4.9 assists, many of them to center Egidijus Mockevicius slipping to the basket when the defense cheats too much toward Balentine.
“Not only do you have to guard screens for (Balentine), you have to be sure to help in the right plays when he is setting screens,” Baker said. “You get so focused on your man, specifically, coming off screens and setting screens that you get out of position.”
There is also a physical toll that playing the Aces exacts. Defenders must be prepared to fight through screens and keep up with Balentine’s perpetual motion.
“If you’re guarding D.J., it’s tough,” Baker said. “He’s obviously very good at reading screens, so he’s good at running you into them. If you don’t chase him or read the screen the right way, he’s going to make you pay.”
It wasn’t long ago Evansville represented a significant irritant to WSU’s ambitions.
A loss in 2010 at Evansville ruined NCAA hopes for a rising program. The Aces swept the Shockers in 2013, costing them at least a share of the MVC title with a win at Koch Arena to spoil senior day for Carl Hall, Malcolm Armstead, Ehimen Orukpe and Demetric Williams.
Since then, however, the Shockers found ways to muck up Evansville’s motion offense and the tone of the series shifted. Better talent helped. So did an understanding of how to play against the Aces. WSU has won five in a row, all by 14 or more points. Last season, WSU defeated Evansville 61-41 and 62-43, holding the Aces to 30.6-percent shooting.
2,089Career points by Evansville’s D.J. Balentine, tops in the MVC
1,625Career points by Southern Illinois’ Anthony Beane
1,341Career points by WSU’s Ron Baker
1,246 Career points by Evansville’s Egidijius Mockevicius
1,243 Career points by WSU’s Anton Grady
1,167 Career points by WSU’s Fred VanVleet
In 2014, Evansville made its first eight shots against WSU on its way to a 29-14 lead. The Shockers started putting more pressure on point guards Duane Gibson and Jaylon Brown to obstruct their passing lanes. With Shockers in their faces, the guards weren’t easily able to deliver on-time passes to Balentine and Evansville’s offense suffered.
“You can’t give them a lot of easy ones of their sets,” Marshall said. “They’re very effective at stealing baskets, internal screens and getting a quick layup. They’re getting easy shots, and that’s through their screening and their passing and their cutting.”
WSU won 81-67 and the Aces haven’t come any closer since.
“You have to guard (Balentine) as well as you can and make each shot contested, make it clogged,” Marshall said.
It will take another strong defensive effort to cool off Evansville’s offense. The Aces average 81 points and make 52.4 percent of their shots and 35 percent of their three-pointers. Balentine averages 21.5 points and Mockevicius averages 18.5 points and 14.4 rebounds, while shooting 68 percent from the field.
While those two are well-known stars, improvement by Brown, a junior, and junior forward Mislav Brzoja make the Aces more dangerous. Brown averages 10.5 points, up from 5.3 last season, and makes 58.5 percent of his shots. Brzoja, who averages 8.6 points, is third in the MVC with a 2.3 assist-to-turnover ratio. After making 29.9 percent of his threes last season, he is shooting 43.3 this season.
“(Brzoja) feels real comfortable with his stroke right now,” Evansville coach Marty Simmons said. “He’s making better decisions with the basketball.”
Evansville at Wichita State
- When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
- Where: Koch Arena
- Records: UE 13-2, 2-0 MVC; WSU 8-5, 2-0
- Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM
- TV: Cox 22
Evansville at Wichita State
Evansville (13-2, 2-0 MVC): Mockevicius leads the nation in rebounding and has 40 double-doubles (scoring and rebounding) in his last 59 games. He also leads the MVC in blocks (2.8).… Evansville’s losses are to Providence (74-64 on a neutral court) and at Arkansas (89-76). The Aces shot 50.9 percent against Providence, now ranked No. 8, and held the Friars to 40.4 percent shooting. Providence outscored the Aces 23-5 at the foul line. Arkansas made 9 of 13 threes and held Evansville to 3 of 17.… Evansville’s 52.4-percent shooting ranks third nationally. It averages 21.1 assists, second nationally behind Baylor.…G Duane Gibson, a starter for much of his first two seasons, has missed most of the season with a knee injury. He last played at Arkansas on Dec. 8.
Wichita State (8-5, 2-0 MVC): The Shockers are protecting a 38-game home win streak (three at Intrust Bank Arena), which is tied with Tulsa (1980-82) for the fourth-longest in MVC history. It is the third-longest active streak nationally, trailing Arizona (47) and Louisiana Tech (39).… The Shockers have forced more turnovers (33) than allowed baskets (26) in wins over Drake and Bradley. In two games against the Aces last season, WSU forced 27 turnovers and allowed 30 baskets… Baker averages 18.5 points and 5.0 rebounds in five career games against the Aces. He is 30 of 61 from the field. In last season’s 62-43 win at Koch Arena, he recorded his first (and only) double-double with 18 points and 15 rebounds. He scored a career-high 26 points in a 2014 win at Evansville.… Morris played one of his best games last season in a 61-41 win at Evansville. He scored nine points and blocked two shots.
RPIs as of Tuesday: UE 87, WSU 81