Key statistics: Wichita State’s big edge over the Aces is depth and that showed up in many ways. A 28-8 edge in bench scoring. Credible defensive efforts on Aces guard D.J. Balentine by three Shockers. Anton Grady’s 17 points off the bench. Markis McDuffie’s defense and rebounding off the bench.
Evansville missed seven of 21 foul shots, which is not helpful when trying to win on the road.
How the game turned: The Aces defined this game by never letting WSU go on a killer run. The Shockers defined it by never letting the Aces take the lead.
WSU’s final push started with Zach Brown tipping a rebound when Anton Grady missed a foul shot, diving on the floor to grab the ball and calling timeout (or allowing a teammate to call it) to give WSU a precious possession with 3:14 to play.
WSU guard Fred VanVleet won it in the final minutes with his expert decisions and his teammates made the shots. Evan Wessel’s corner three made it 60-57. VanVleet made a look-away pass to a cutting Grady, after a pick and roll, for a layup and a 62-59 lead. VanVleet’s layup off a ball-screen, made it 64-61 with 1:01 to play.
Then Brown, open in the same corner as Wessel after VanVleet drew defenders coming off a screen, swished a three for a 67-62 lead.
The Shockers won several loose-ball battles, which helped them take 13 more shots than the Aces.
Records: UE 13-3, 2-1 MVC; WSU 9-5, 3-0
Stat that might surprise you: Ron Baker, after making a career of bedeviling the Aces, made 3 of 10 shots, lofting two airballs, and scored nine points. He entered the game averaging 18.6 points and shooting 49.1 percent against Evansville in five games.
Aces coach Marty Simmons wasn’t going to watch that again.
The Aces are a well-schooled defensive team that is equipped to guard WSU’s perimeter players. They rarely helped off Baker and Adam Wing, Blake Simmons, Jaylon Brown and Mislav Brozja are tall and experienced defenders.
Evansville is the kind of team that, since they’re always in your face, speeds up shooters and makes them uncomfortable, even when they might be open. It played off Wessel and Rashard Kelly to account for Baker and VanVleet.
It worked, right up until the point it didn’t.
While Baker didn’t have a great shooting night, his presence did get teammates open.
Stat that won’t surprise you: VanVleet had a season-high nine assists, giving him 515 for his career. He also had five rebounds, which gives him 395 for his career. He needs five more rebounds to become the second MVC player with 1,000 points, 500 assists and 400 rebounds. Former Indiana State guard Jake Odum is the other.
That stat is a reflection of VanVleet’s versatility.
It is also a reflection of the fact Larry Bird (2,850 points/1,247 rebounds/434 assists) played three seasons at Indiana State. Oscar Robertson (2,973/1,338/425) played three seasons and Cincinnati apparently didn’t record assists in his first season.
There are similar stories with WSU’s Cleo Littleon (2,164/878/no assists recorded from 1951-55), Dave Stallworth (1,936/838/no assists recorded from 1961-65) and Warren Armstrong (1,301/839/429 in three seasons).
Freshman watch: Markis McDuffie gets gold stars for not relying on his offensive skills. He is enthusiastically embracing the dive-on-the-floor aspect of Shockers basketball in a way many freshmen who became stars by scoring don’t.
The fact coaches trusted him to guard D.J. Balentine says a lot. There is little doubt that McDuffie’s background under coach Bob Hurley in high school prepared him for WSU’s demands.
Finishing stronger at the basket, as he failed to do Wednesday, is an easy fix. Getting a kid to buy into the dirty work is often not.
Why they’re All-Americans: VanVleet and Baker made their share of forced shots and ill-advised turnovers. Baker, however, excelled on defense during his time on Balentine. VanVleet orchestrated closing time and the Shockers survive and advance.
Key to the whole thing is that they didn’t let poor shooting affect their defense. And they had the composure to not let mistakes snowball into something worse. In a low-possession game, a combined 12 assists and four turnovers is solid and VanVleet added three steals.
Rotation watch: WSU played 10 and all contributed something. That is depth most teams can’t match.
▪ Wichita State had its most success, especially late in the game, when it put Aces center Egidijus Mockevicius in the open court trying to guard the pick and roll.
He isn’t great moving his feet in those situations and often allowed Grady to shoot open jumpers or VanVleet to get moving toward the basket. He is also burdened by the fact he doesn’t want to foul and plays a lot of minutes. As a result, VanVleet exploited him late in the game off the pick and roll.
Given space, VanVleet did what he does.
“He makes a lot of plays other players can’t make,” Grady said. “When a guy puts so much trust in you and faith in you, you want to return the favor. The only favor he’s asking for you to do is finish the play and get the assist for him. It’s a win-win. I think the two points is winning more, but he prefers the assist, because he’s a point guard.”
Simmons has seen it before.
“He’s such a cerebral player,” he said. “He reads exactly how you’re defending it and he has a counter. He’s so unselfish. Every way you guard it, he’s got an answer.”
▪ Since the start of the 2013-14 seasons, WSU has played six home games with a winning margin under 10 points. Only Alabama (53-52) came closer than the Aces to ending WSU’s 38-game home win streak.
If Simmons was looking for a marker this season for his Aces, he got a good one on Wednesday. The Aces are a smart, tough, experienced team who should be able to punch through the ceiling that’s kept them from winning more than nine or 10 games in MVC play in recent seasons. That effort should give them some road wins.
“To come to this environment, against this team … even though we didn’t get the result, I felt like we competed,” he said.
Junior guard Jaylon Brown is one of the Valley’s most improved players and he came up big against the Shockers. He scored 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting and made things tough for VanVleet with dogged defense.
He earned more attention from WSU in the rematch on Jan. 31 at the Ford Center.
“Fred was told, going into the game, to help off him a little more,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “We’re going to have to adjust that scouting report. Brown was really good, shooting the ball confidently, which he has not been doing. He was a real difference-maker for them.”
Next up: at Southern Illinois, 3 p.m. Saturday (CBS Sports Network, KEYN, FM-103.7)