Exploring the ‘razor thin’ margin between winning and losing for these Shockers

No one is more disappointed in Wichita State’s 0-3 start in American Athletic Conference play than coach Gregg Marshall, but he also knows the Shockers aren’t far away from winning those games.

But Marshall and WSU fans haven’t been playing the would’ve, could’ve, should’ve games for a long time. It’s shocking to some fans to see any Shockers team lose four straight games, something they haven’t done in a decade, which perhaps puts in perspective just how impressive WSU has been under Marshall.

“We’re right there, but we haven’t finished,” Marshall said. “Our margin for error, especially this year, is razor thin. We’re going to have to find a way to get more quality possessions. More finished possessions on the defensive end and figure out a way to get a little bit better shots on the offensive end.”

I wanted to explore just how razor-thin that margin for error is with this team and I’ll use WSU’s last game, a 79-70 loss at Houston, to illustrate the point.

Did you know for 36 of 40 minutes and 124 of 136 possessions, WSU was every bit as good as a top-20 team on its home court? But during that four-minute, 12-possession stretch halfway through the second half, WSU went from up one, 56-55, to down nine, 66-57, and never fully recovered.

If WSU can hang with Houston on the road for over 90 percent of the game, then it’s certainly capable of competing with, and beating, any team in a conference that appears void of an elite team. But it’s worth exploring the kind of lapses that are plaguing the Shockers and holding them back in losses.

Think of each half separated into five “rounds.” Each round is four minutes. In WSU’s first three AAC games, it is winning or playing even in at least three of the second-half rounds. But there is always one four-minute stretch where the Shockers give up a huge run and it’s so hard to come back from that consistently.

At Memphis, a 85-74 loss, WSU was being outscored 15-5 in a four-minute stretch inside the 10-minute mark. In an 85-81 loss to Temple, the Shockers were torched 11-0 in the final 3:30 of regulation and eventually lost in overtime.

But the one we’re going to take a look at is the Houston game, where the 11-1 rally by Houston halfway through the second half gave it the cushion it needed to hold onto the victory down the stretch. In fact, WSU’s defense failed to generate a single kill (three straight defensive stops) against Houston in the second half, the first time that’s happened all season.

Let’s take a look at the seven key plays during this stretch that cost WSU the most. If the Shockers can cut down on these type of mistakes moving forward, their chances of winning should greatly increase.

The important part of this play happens underneath the basket when the shot goes up. Jaime Echenique is manning the middle of WSU’s 2-3 zone and is grappling with Houston’s Breaon Brady when the shot goes up. Echenique is in front, but doesn’t use his back side to check Brady out and Brady slips around him.

That matters because then Echenique puts his forearm on Brady’s back and when the shot comes off the rim, nudges him just enough to convince the referee to whistle him for his fourth foul. It was just a momentary lapse, but it cost Echenique, who missed the next six minutes because of foul trouble, and WSU, as Houston scored two points on the second chance after it looked like WSU’s defense had finished the stop.

WSU should have retaken the lead on this possession, as it had the perfect chance to cash in on opportunity basketball. Houston double-teams Dexter Dennis in the corner and his pass is high and wide, but Ricky Torres does well to snag it and comes down with two open options.

He has Asbjorn Midtgaard on the left block or Samajae Haynes-Jones in the left corner open for the kick-out. Torres picks Midtgaard, which was the right choice, but he tries to make a bounce pass, which was the wrong choice. Instead of making the 7-footer reach down low, this pass should have been a lob up high where Midtgaard could have caught and finished it by the rim.

But WSU gets another chance to retake the lead immediately, as Torres pokes the ball out and creates a fast break. Usually you’re looking to push the ball to attack a back-pedaling defense, but here we see Markis McDuffie to pull up for a three-pointer that ends up being pretty well-contested by Houston’s Corey Davis Jr.

Should McDuffie have kept attacking and forced the issue at the rim? Probably. But it’s harsh to criticize split-second decisions like this one. Regardless, down 57-56, WSU has let Houston off the hook twice now when it had good opportunities to score.

Here was WSU’s third and final chance to take the lead back. Watch underneath the basket where Haynes-Jones puts his whole body into a screen on Houston’s center to free Midtgaard up. When Midtgaard comes off the screen, he’s in great position and open. He has his hand raised right where the ball would need to be delivered for him to go straight up with it for two points.

But the opening was brief and the ball handler, Jamarius Burton, hesitated for that brief moment and the window closed. It would have required a pinpoint pass and a good catch by Midtgaard, but this could have been a basket for WSU. Instead, Burton whips it to Haynes-Jones, who ends up taking an off-the-dribble, contested two-point jumper that misses.

On this defensive possession, WSU makes two small mistakes that add up to one costly mistake. The first comes with the on-ball defense by Haynes-Jones. He should be forcing Robinson to drive toward the base-line; instead he allows the in-and-out dribble by Houston’s Galen Robinson to get him off-balanced and as a result, gives up middle penetration.

Robinson isn’t much of a scorer himself, so this itself was not fatal. But when Robinson drives middle, Rod Brown swipes down as the help defender. Meanwhile, Brown’s man, Houston sharpshooter Armoni Brooks, drifts along with Robinson and presents him with the easy kick-out when Brown’s swipe comes up empty.

Give freshman Erik Stevenson a lot of credit here. He makes the quick read that Brown is beat and he comes off his man in the corner to make a great contest on Brooks’ shot. But Brooks is a lights-out shooter and when they get their feet set and have a clear look when they start their shot, a late contest doesn’t matter. Brooks sinks this three to put Houston up 60-56.

On WSU’s next possession, Haynes-Jones takes a screen from Brown and dribbles into an open two-point jumper that misses. Houston doesn’t push in transition, but sometimes the trailer on these plays can be the most dangerous. Here the most dangerous player is Corey Davis Jr., who is trailing the play.

After the miss, Stevenson, who is responsible for Davis, tracks back on defense and runs inside the arc. Most of the time, this is perfectly fine defense. But against an elite player like Davis, you have to be cognizant of where he is at all times. Davis uses this momentary lapse to his advantage, as he sets up for the three-pointer in stride. Stevenson gets caught in traffic, Davis cans the open three and within 37 seconds, Houston takes a 63-56 lead.

WSU switches back to its match-up 2-3 zone and it’s hard to fault the defense of Burton too much. He’s rightly concerned with Brady in the high post and when the ball swings to the left side and Brady slides over to set a ball screen, Burton feels obligated to be there to prevent Houston from penetrating.

But the overplay makes the other wing wide open and a simple pass back to Corey Davis Jr. gives him a wide-open look from three. It’s a tough ask, but Burton probably needed to stay a few steps closer so he could have retreated and challenged Davis more on the shot. Instead, Davis fires away freely and drills another three to cap Houston’s 11-1 rally.

As you can see above, none of these plays were egregious errors on WSU’s part. But good teams are going to exploit lapses and WSU will have to clean those up if it is going to snap out of its losing skid this week against Central Florida and Cincinnati.

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