Key statistics: WSU forced nine second-half turnovers and scored nine points off those turnovers. The Shockers squeezed out six more shot attempts than the Tide, in part because of 12 offensive rebounds, six more than the Tide.
Records: UA 6-3, WSU 8-1
How the game turned: Alabama led 51-40 with 6:01 remaining and had possession of the ball. In its final possessions, Alabama committed four turnovers, missed four shots and made one of two free throws.
Stat that shouldn’t surprise you: WSU’s Darius Carter scored 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting and is averaging 16.6 points and 9.6 rebounds over the past three games. He is 21 of 34 from the field (61.7 percent) in those games.
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Stat that might surprise you: The Shockers made 8 of 17 free throws to drop to 64.6 percent this season. This will cost WSU at some point.
Next up: vs. Loyola Marymount, 10 p.m. Monday, Diamond Head Classic (ESPNU)
▪ If you were waiting for a defining moment from a newcomer, perhaps one arrived on Tuesday. Rashard Kelly scored two crucial baskets late in the game and those kind of plays should help all the rookies see one of their own have success. It can be done, by sticking to your role, being in the right spot and executing fundamentals.
“He was making the easy plays and not trying to do something he’s not really capable of right now,” junior Ron Baker said.
Kelly scored both his baskets in the lane, one after a drop-off from Tekele Cotton. He scored the tying hoop on a drive that started near the three-point line where no defender picked him until he reached the middle of the lane.
“All the older guys, they’re great players and I love watching them make the spectacular plays, the jaw-dropping plays, because that’s what they do and they deserve to make those plays,” Kelly said. “I just like bringing energy and being the clean-up service, getting rebounds.”
Can Kelly provide a road map for other newcomers to increase their production? He is the most consistent freshman, largely because of his ability to rebound, and now he has scoring success to draw upon.
“The better they play, the more they will play,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “In practice and in games. The other guys have to take his lead and continue to evolve as players. If they do that, they’re going to play more.”
▪ No updates today from WSU on Evan Wessel.
▪ Part of the genius of a press is that puts players in unfamiliar positions by design.
After Kelly tied the game, Alabama desperately needed a solid possession to cool off the crowd and get a good shot. Two players should have handled the ball. Levi Randolph (who leads Alabama with 24 assists) inbounded. Guard Ricky Tarrant, who runs the team on many possessions, faded away from Randolph and didn’t make much effort to take the pass. Randolph passed to Rodney Cooper, who has 12 assists and 11 turnovers this season. He Jay Cutlered the ball out of bounds, after being trapped in the corner, across the court.
Alabama’s previous turnover occurred when the Shockers trapped Tarrant, forcing him to pass to Michael Kessens, a 6-foot-9 sophomore who has twice as many turnovers as assists. Kessens fumbled the ball away.
“That was the game right there,” Tide coach Anthony Grant told the Associated Press. “That's what we've got to get better at. They only had two fouls and could be extra aggressive. We didn't handle it.”
The Tide wanted no part of WSU’s press, showing the “unsureness” Baker spoke about after the game. A strong point guard wants the ball against a press and provides a calming presence. Alabama lacked that player on Tuesday.
“We knew their guards didn’t really handle pressure too well,” Carter said. “We knew once we pressured them one time and got the turnover, we knew we would keep the heat on them.”
▪ Alabama’s defense did a great job keeping the Shockers playing on half the court and making it difficult to reverse the ball. They trapped Baker and VanVleet often and forced some turnovers and difficult shots.
Alabama’s length and athletic ability almost won the day.
“They were making us reject ball screens, even in zone, which we don’t see too much,” Baker said.
The game changed once WSU started forcing turnovers. Then VanVleet and Baker started to drive and draw fouls. Alabama center Jimmie Taylor, who blocked three shots and caused WSU many problems, fouled out with 4:29 remaining and the Shockers enjoyed much more success in the lane after he departed.
Taylor fouled out after VanVleet wisely pushed the ball at the retreating big man on a break and forced contact to remove Taylor. Heady play, and one that loomed large when Carter, Baker and Kelly began to score at the basket in the final four minutes.
▪ Perhaps those were the kind of plays Marshall thought of when asked about VanVleet’s season.
VanVleet isn’t putting up national Player of the Year stats on offense, which so far only means he’s a very good point guard instead of the best point guard in the nation. He isn’t shooting the ball well (25.8 percent from three and 36.9 percent overall) and he’s missed high-profile foul shots. His assist-to-turnover ratio is 3.1, good enough to lead the Missouri Valley Conference and rank in a tie for 33rd nationally. It’s not last season’s 4.0 ratio, which also led the MVC and ranked fourth nationally.
Considering the lack of experience on the bench, the schedule (warrennolan.com ranks it No. 8 nationally) and the loss of Cleanthony Early, a period of retrenching and adjustment on offense shouldn’t be terribly surprising. Standards for VanVleet are high after his first two seasons, so it’s noticeable when things slip, even early in the season and even slightly, in the case of turnovers.
But, in the final minutes of Tuesday’s game, he played like a point guard by wanting the ball, getting the ball to the right places, making winning plays and not letting a mistake or two turn fatal. He made an accurate pass to Carter for the winning dunk. Then he poked the ball away from Randolph to spoil Alabama’s final possession.
There are many teams who can’t count on those skills. Why did an 11-point lead slip away for the Tide? In part because it didn’t have anybody doing VanVleet things in the final four minutes.
“He’s 8-1, he’s 11th-ranked in the country,” Marshall said. “He’s a leader in that locker room. I don’t know what’s off about that.”
▪ I was a little surprised at how many references ESPN people made to an expected blowout by the Shockers. That did not seem likely, both because of Alabama’s defense and WSU’s lack of depth.
▪ It’s always a little hard for me to judge the crowd because sometimes I’m trying to ignore the noise. Tuesday, seemed like one of those rare cases when the crowd really did help lift the Shockers in a time of need. The noise seemed to peak for about five solid minutes at the end.
▪ It is also worth noting the caliber of defenses faced by the Shockers in nine games when thinking about offensive numbers and the progress of the newcomers.
Six of the eight NCAA Division I opponents faced by WSU rank in the top 120 (there are 351 schools) in forcing turnovers (turnover percentage as measure by kenpom.com).
Seven rank in the top 150 of adjusted defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions by kenpom.com) and five rank in the top 85.
Five rank in the top 103 of defensive effective field goal percentage (which takes into account the extra value of three-pointers).
So if you found yourself thinking that the Shockers are playing a lot of teams with long, aggressive athletes playin in schemes that make it difficult to pass, dribble and shoot, it appears you were correct.