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Day After: NCAA Tournament first weekend

Wichita State forward Evan Wessel made four three-pointers in Sunday’s win over Kansas.
Wichita State forward Evan Wessel made four three-pointers in Sunday’s win over Kansas. The Wichita Eagle

Scores: Wichita State 81, Indiana 76; Wichita State 78, Kansas 65

Key statistics: The Shockers outscored both opponents in the paint, a credit to their guards, and ended the two days plus-28 in that category. Darius Carter, although limited by fouls, did enough to be something of a factor. Mainly, however, it was Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton getting to the rim. WSU committed seven turnovers against Indiana and 12 against Kansas to win that stat by a plus-eight on the weekend. The Shockers didn’t allow Indiana to score a fast-break point and outscored Kansas 10-2. That meant the Hoosiers and Jayhawks spent most of the game going against WSU’s organized half-court defense.

Up next: vs. Notre Dame, 6:15 p.m. Thursday, Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland (CBS)

▪  It seemed impossible to top 2013’s Final Four. Going 35-0 in 2014 and playing Kentucky in a Game of the Year is a good effort. If you thought that couldn’t be topped, well, beating Indiana and Kansas on the same weekend in Omaha is in the running.

The Shockers, starting with March 2013, do a wonderful job of handling the emotion and stress of the tournament. They seem to enjoy it, while still working and preparing. This weekend threw another emotional challenge at them and they played it perfectly. At its most basic level, this was about one group of players wanting to play against a team that didn’t recruit them and proving their worth.

Kansas, with the exception of Perry Ellis, Frank Mason and Devonte Graham, never seemed to understand that. If they did, they couldn’t sustain that pace past the early minutes. The Shockers did.

“You see why they wanted the game,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “There’s a lot of familiarity and they’re such a great program. Why wouldn’t you want to play them? I’d love to play them in the tournament every year.”

Strip away the emotion of playing Kansas (for fans, players and coaches) and the weekend comes down to a tour de force by Wichita State’s backcourt. If you needed a primer on why guards win big games, look at those 80 minutes of basketball. Fred VanVleet, Tekele Cotton and Ron Baker controlled the pace of the game at almost every turn, regardless of whether or not they made shots. That trio combined for 19 assists and 12 turnovers while their Indiana and Kansas counterparts combined for 7 and 16.

VanVleet isn’t quicker than Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell or Kansas’ Frank Mason. VanVleet wins the matchup because he understands the value of playing at different speeds. He is patient when he needs to be and aggressive when it makes sense. VanVleet’s use of screens is about as good as anybody in the nation and when the Shockers needed half-court offense in the second half, he made it happen.

“The bigs did a good job screening us and the guards are quick and very tough and they could get into the lane off ball screens,” Graham said. “It was hard with them making shots and still having to guard their quickness.”

▪  The clock never ran out on improvement for Wichita State’s newcomers. Kansas is a less-experienced team than WSU, certainly, but lost in that theme is the fact the Shockers started the season with zero experience on the bench. It took longer for the reserves to catch on than expected and the Shockers now look like a team that is deep enough for the NCAA Tournament with its long timeouts and days off.

But Shaq Morris is a constant. Zach Brown, who looked so promising in Hawaii before slipping during MVC play, grew up immensely as a Three-and-D threat who can defend multiple positions and make outside shots. Rashard Kelly and Bush Wamukota can rebound and defend in small doses and all of a sudden WSU coach can think of their team around eight deep, which is plenty for the NCAA Tournament.

Shockers coaches keep working with those players deep into the season. Those players kept improving even after most of the season passed with minimal contributions.

“All the time we put in, all the effort — eight new college players,” Marshall said. “We can beat anyone in the country when we play well.”

▪  Evan Wessel earned his place in Shocker lore with that performance, one of those games that makes March such a great story. The player who had to shoot well for WSU to win did just that. His defense and hustle represented the difference between the two teams in one 6-foot-4 package.

He shot without hesitation, with great confidence, and when he does that the Shockers are a better team.

When WSU fans discuss March basketball for the next 50 years, Wessel’s 30 minutes and 12 points is going to be one of the top memories and that’s got to be a sweet feeling for a Wichita kid.

▪  So now it’s on to Cleveland for a match-up with Notre Dame. The Irish, and you know this if you watched their closing burst against North Carolina in the ACC Tournament, are a scary-good shooting team. They rank second nationally in kenpom.com’s adjusted shooting efficiency (which rewards for three-pointers) at 58.4 percent, third in turnover rate (14.5 percent) and third in the points per possession (1.2).

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