EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall wants his players to play like their “hair is on fire.” He likes it when they play angry, you might remember. He worships rebounders and the first player who dives for a loose ball.
All that vivid imagery and rambunctious attitude disguises an equally important characteristic of this season’s 13th-ranked Shockers — they are exceedingly patient and careful with the basketball. WSU leads the Missouri Valley Conference in turnover margin (4.12) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.5), both of which are on pace for Marshall-era bests.
Ken Pomeroy’s turnover-percentage statistics (percentage of possessions which end in a turnover) ranks WSU tied for sixth nationally at 15.3 percent.
Consider the problems facing MVC coaches, trying to scheme against a team that doesn’t make mistakes. WSU rarely opens the door for a game-turning rally because it refuses to let the opposition run free for layups and dunks after turnovers. Guard Fred VanVleet ranks ninth nationally with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.69, with totals of 96 assists and 26 turnovers.
“If I was in the military, I think I’d get him for all reconnaissance missions,” Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson said. “I think he’s the best prober I’ve seen. He’s just so strong with the basketball and he doesn’t turn it over. He’s so patient, so he can drag a play out longer than most teams can.”
Wichita State (15-2, 5-0 Valley) plays Evansville (13-4, 3-2) on Saturday at the Ford Center. The Aces are no wild bunch when running coach Marty Simmons’ motion offense. They lead the MVC with an average of 17.5 assists and rank second with a 1.4 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Should the Shockers maintain their current turnover rates, they will record the program’s best turnover margin since the 1997-98 team (3.26). WSU’s success starts with VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton, the primary ball-handlers, who play 30-plus minutes and commit less than two turnovers a game. WSU’s lineup, with 6-foot-4 Evan Wessel at forward, may sacrifice rebounding in some games, but its ball-handling compensates.
“The group that we have, they’re predominantly pretty good ball-handlers,” Marshall said. “They want to win and in order to win, you’ve got to get quality shots and the more you get, the better.”
WSU has had a postive turnover margin the past three seasons and in four of Marshall’s previous seven. Its assist-to-turnover ratio ranked in the top half of the MVC the past six seasons.
“(Coaches) teach us to do the easy thing,” Baker said. “And when you put new players in this system, they can kind of get it a little easier. Most of the system is run without the ball. When Coach puts us in motion, you screen down, you pop back to the ball.”
MVC play lowered WSU’s point totals, but not its efficiency.
The Shockers are shooting 47.9 percent from the field and 36 percent from three-point range in five Valley games. In the past two — double-digit wins over Loyola and Southern Illinois — WSU shot better than 50 percent and committed 13 turnovers. It won both games with Baker making 2 of 9 three-pointers.
Forward Darius Carter scored a career-high 25 points against SIU on Sunday. He is shooting 55.8 percent from the field in MVC games after making 11 of 15 against SIU.
“When he gets the ball in the post, it opens up the floor for kickouts and open threes,” Marshall said. “You’ve got to send at least one guy and maybe a man-and-a-half when he gets the ball.”
VanVleet matched his career-high with 10 assists at Loyola. Cotton matched his career high with four three-pointers at Loyola and handed out five assists against SIU.
“I love the way (Cotton) drove it,” Marshall said. “He drove it efficiently, aggressively and got a couple buckets for himself and for others.”
Evansville is trying to rebound from a 1-2 MVC start after winning back-to-back MVC road games for the first time since 1998-99. The Aces held Bradley to 32.1-percent shooting in a 66-56 win. Missouri State missed 11 of its 13 three-pointers and shot 36.4 percent from the field in Evansville’s 56-54 win.
No. 13 Wichita State at Evansville
When: 1 p.m., Saturday
Where: Ford Center, Evansville, Ind.
Records: WSU 15-2, 5-0 MVC; UE 13-4, 3-2
Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM
No. 13 Wichita St. at Evansville
Wichita State (15-2, 5-0): WSU has won a modern-record 23 straight MVC regular-season games and 26 including tournament wins … It brings an 11-game MVC road winning streak to the Ford Center. WSU is 42-9, best in the nation, on the road since the 2010-11 season … The Shockers are trying to reach 6-0 for the second straight season and fifth time in program history … VanVleet ranks eighth on WSU’s career list with 378 assists. No. 7 Paul Guffrovich has 383 and No. 6 Aubrey Sherrod has 384 … WSU’s Jan. 25 game against Drake will tip at 1 p.m. on ESPN3.com … WSU leads the series 25-16 and has won three straight since a loss to the Aces at Koch Arena in 2013, WSU’s last home loss. Baker scored a career-high 26 points in last season’s 82-58 win at Evansville.
Evansville (13-4, 3-2): Evansville’s 13-4 start is the best in coach Marty Simmons’ seven-plus seasons … The Aces lead the MVC in scoring (74.6 points) and shooting percentage (51.1), which ranks third nationally. In MVC games, they are averaging 63.8 points and shooting 46.4 percent from the field … Mockevicius has 13 double-doubles, most in Evansville history. He averages 12.6 rebounds in MVC play, tops in the conference … Junior G Adam Wing has been out with a strained quad, but returned to practice on Friday, according to the Evansville Courier & Press, and may play Saturday. Wing started 11 games and averaged 6.7 points before the injury.
RPI as of Friday: WSU 12, UE 81.