Ron Baker does not want your team to hand the ball from one player to another, a low-risk move that usually starts the offense and is conceded by defenders.
This is your warning that everything is a hassle against Wichita State, the No. 1 defensive team in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy’s statistics.
“I’m just trying to make it tough,” Baker said. “Making it tough on the offensive team, making it uncomfortable.”
So Baker crowds the guard, who wants nothing more than to take the ball from his teammate and start the offense. Baker’s long arms poke at the ball and he uses his strength to burst around the screening big man, to bully the ball-handler away from the basket, and use up precious seconds on the shot clock.
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He does it all without fouling. As soon as the possession starts, it is under stress.
“Watch him on hand-offs,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “He doesn’t let you get a simple hand-off.”
This may or may not be coach Gregg Marshall’s best defensive team — certainly the weakness of the Missouri Valley Conference must be considered when evaluating statistics. There is no doubt that the Shockers are a superb defensive unit and their skill in forcing turnovers and stopping scorers makes them the favorite in the MVC Tournament this weekend. The same assets should make them a tough out, no matter the seed, should they land the NCAA Tournament spot that seems more likely with each win.
The top-seeded Shockers (23-7) open tournament play at noon Friday in a quarterfinal game against No. 8 Loyola or No. 9 Bradley at the Scottrade Center.
“We have fun getting stops,” sophomore forward Rashard Kelly said. “Our objective is to shut somebody out. It gives you a swag. It gives you identity as a team.”
WSU’s identity comes from Baker blowing up hand-offs, Fred VanVleet’s vise-grip hands, Zach Brown chasing shooters through screens and Evan Wessel ripping a 50-50 ball away from an opponent. It is Kelly seeing a dribbler whose head is in front of his shoulders, indicating he is moving too fast to stop, and hustling to take a charge. It is Shaq Morris blocking shots and so much more.
The Shockers hold teams .899 points per possession, to lead Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency stat, best of the Marshall era. They rank fourth nationally by forcing turnovers on 23.7 percent of possessions, also a Marshall-era high in the Pomeroy stat. Nine times this season they forced more turnovers than allowed baskets, a list that includes a 67-50 destruction of No. 13 Utah in which the Utes committed 19 turnovers and made 14 baskets.
WSU leads the nation in scoring defense (entering Thursday) by holding opponents to 59.4 points and seventh in shooting defense at 38.5 percent.
“They’ve been really easy to coach,” Marshall said. “They do what we ask them to do.”
Which is appreciate all the hard-work, no-glory, bumps-and-bruises aspects of defense.
For the seniors such as Baker, VanVleet and Wessel, it is an automatic part of life as a Shocker and that trio insures, vocally and by example, that the team is almost always in the right place and working. The younger players learned quickly that minutes are attached to defense and turnovers much more than shooting. Brown described himself as an occasionally motivated defender when he arrived at WSU.
“Last year, when I wasn’t playing at all, it went from ‘Oh, I’ve got to play defense’ to now I love to play defense,” he said. “Now I pride myself on not allowing the other person to score. I know that goal is pretty far-fetched, but coming from a group of guys that put as much effort into defense, it’s really become a special thing.”
88.6Southern Illinois’ defensive efficiency in 2007, No. 2 nationally
89.6 SIU’s defensive efficiency in 2006, No. 7 nationally
89.9WSU’s defensive efficiency in 2016, No. 1 nationally
90.6 Northern Iowa’s defensive efficiency in 2010, No. 11 nationally
The Shockers are great at defense in large part because they are always on defense. Turnovers are the hardest offensive play to guard and the Shockers don’t give the ball away often.
Their turnover percentage of 14.6 ranks eighth nationally, according to Ken Pomeroy, which means they rarely give up fast-break baskets and rarely are scrambling helter-skelter to give up easy shots. Opponents spend most of the game facing WSU’s organized and motivated half-court defense. For the season, it is outscoring opponents 19.3-9.4 after turnovers.
Because they force so many turnovers — 15.8 a game — the Shockers thrive on dunks and layups and those baskets allow them to set presses and half-court defenses.
While WSU’s basic defensive structure is unchanged, it is pressuring and denying more passes than in previous seasons. It possesses the depth, experience and talent to do so and the increase in disruptive perimeter activities helps protect an interior defense that is merely average at shot-blocking instead of superior as it was in 2013 and 2014. WSU also enjoys the luxury of deploying Baker, its best defender, on the offense’s No. 2 scorer because of the presence of Brown and freshman Markis McDuffie.
Brown showed his defensive potential late in his freshman season. His ability to replace some of Tekele Cotton’s lockdown abilities on the wing is a key building block. WSU’s defense bumped up a level with the somewhat surprising development of McDuffie.
In fall practices, McDuffie didn’t approach his work as seriously as coaches wanted, an aspect that improved after conversations tightened up his loose attitude toward the importance of the task. Early in the season, he struggled with the defensive game plan. In an early January game against Evansville, he performed credibly against guard D.J. Balentine and the Shockers had a second tall and tenacious stopper to pair with Brown.
“I had no idea that he was going to be do what he did,” Marshall said. “He has such a slight build. But, he’s not afraid and he moves his feet very well.”
Baker is an ideal defender, smart, experienced, strong and subtle enough to punish opponents without drawing fouls. He is also critical to WSU’s offense and saves energy and avoids fouls by guarding lesser offensive options most of the game. Brown and McDuffie are free to focus most of their work on players such as Balentine and Southern Illinois’ Anthony Beane. If needed, Baker can take a few possessions on the No. 1 scorer.
“If we needed a stop to win a game, Ron Baker’s probably going to be on the best offensive player,” Marshall said. “He knows what is a foul and what is not. He knows the scouting report better than we do. He understands not to jump in the air and go for a shot-fake.”
With Brown or McDuffie on the top scorer, Baker and VanVleet are free to use their instincts to steal careless passes, pilfer the ball from post players and block shots. They can cause maximum disruption while not neglecting their duties. VanVleet is a three-time member of the MVC’s All-Defensive Team and Baker earned his first spot earlier this week.
“You don’t see LeBron guarding Steph Curry for 48 minutes,” Baker said. “I’m guarding a guy that might space or the court or run off screens and not have the ball in his hands a whole lot. So my positioning is key and I’m pretty good at getting in the right position once the ball is on the floor.”
Beyond the the athletic ability and the strategy, WSU’s defense is about coaches making it important all year and players who understand.
“They get it,” Moser said. “Here’s a great example. We’re down 20 against Wichita last week. Four, five minutes left, and we were on the free-throw line and VanVleet was yelling at his players. He was (mad) at what just happened. When you get your leaders putting that much emphasis … and taking it to heart, it permeates the team.”
VanVleet does yell and instruct. Or, as Brown might think of it, conducts.
“When everybody is doing what they need to do, defense looks like music,” he said. “It’s an art. If you’re doing it the right way, it looks beautiful.”
Consider them stopped
The Shockers rank No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency stat by allowing opponents to score .899 points per possession, ahead of Louisville and San Diego State at .901. (The top 50 offensive teams range from scoring 1.11 to 1.24 points per possession and mid-level offenses are around 1.03). It is the best defensive performance of Gregg Marshall’s time at WSU.
WSU’s defensive efficiency per 100 possessions (national rank)
Gone the other way
WSU’s rate of causing turnovers (23.7 percent of possessions) ranks fourth nationally and is the best of the Marshall era, according to Ken Pomeroy’s statistics at kenpom.com.
Opponent turnover percentage (national rank)