Key statistics: Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Connor Frankamp combined to go 4 for 19 from three-point range. Secondary shooters Evan Wessel and Markis McDuffie, who had the benefit of more open shots, went 0 for 5.
Illinois State’s 13-point edge at the foul line and its 11-point rebound edge set the stage. When the Redbirds committed only nine turnovers, it took away WSU’s remaining weapon. The Shockers spent the second half mucked up against a zone defense and didn’t get the easy baskets on breaks its defense usually produces.
How the game turned: Wichita State briefly went up by 16 points early in the second half and then couldn’t do a thing right.
Shaq Morris, who usually doesn’t guard outside shooters, lost Deontae Hawkins for a split-second and Hawkins made a three.
Then Redbirds guard Paris Lee got going on his way to a superb second half. After VanVleet couldn’t score on a break, Lee’s layup cut the lead to 12. Lee hustled back to knock the ball off VanVleet’s leg and ruin another fast break.
DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell’s three-point play off an offensive rebound cut WSU’s lead to nine points. A press caused WSU’s Zach Brown to dribble and every MVC scouting report must tell defenses to attack that situation. Lee snuck up for a steal. He followed that with a three to make the score 38-32.
The Shockers never recovered.
Records: WSU 17-6, 11-1 MVC; ISU 14-11, 8-4
Stat that might surprise you: The Redbirds entered the game shooting 63.5 percent from the line, last in the MVC. They made 22 of 26 for a season-best 84.6 percent.
Stat that shouldn’t surprise you: The Redbirds outscored WSU 22-9 at the line. The Shockers were outscored at the line for the 13th time. On the season, they are down 16 made free throws and 20 attempts. Those are usually not signs of a winning team.
WSU does so many other things well, and its depth is so good, that it can survive foul issues. Most nights. It is probably not a way the Shockers want to try to win NCAA Tournament games.
Freshman watch: McDuffie’s three-point shooting is slumping in MVC play, enough so that teams can play off him enough to devote more attention to other Shockers. He is 6 for 23 from three-point range in his past 12 game.
Why they’re All-Americans: Tough game for both Baker and VanVleet from a shooting angle. Credit the Redbirds, who played an active zone defense and are tall enough to alter shots most MVC teams don’t bother.
Baker held up well on defense when the Redbirds tried to go at him. He is 5 for 21 in his past two games after a stretch of five games in which he made 20 of 32 shots.
VanVleet had seven assists, but wasn’t clearly the best point guard on the court and it’s not often that happens.
“A lot of guys didn’t play well, starting with myself,” VanVleet said. “You can’t have multiple guys not play well on the road.”
On Saturday, the Shockers needed a few more baskets from both.
Rotation watch: Nine Shockers played, all 11 minutes or more. Foul problem with Brown and Morris probably kept coaches from rotating pieces as preferred. Brown, who is 9 of 23 from three-point range in MVC games, played only 11 minutes. Morris played 20 minutes, only seven in the second half when fouls started to mount.
▪ WSU coach Gregg Marshall took the blame for his team’s struggles against the zone defense. While I’m sure there are adjustments to be made or better prep work, he also can’t make shots and his players missed some they need to make. Illinois State did a masterful job of slowing the Shockers, making them waste time passing and dribbling away from the basket to force a difficult shot.
The Shockers did make some effective plays against the zone. Baker knifed inside twice for good shots. A baseline cut by Zach Brown worked once and had a chance a second time. Often, WSU can break down a zone with Baker sucking in the defense at the foul line and passing out.
On Saturday, nothing worked often enough and the Redbirds fed off WSU’s frustrations.
“I’ve got to do a better job of having them prepared to execute and get it in there,” he said. “A couple times we did, we were able to drive it, dump it down low. But we were playing east to west too much.”
The Redbirds are a good zone team and they have the athletes to rush and distract shooters. They also rebounded well out of the zone, which is often difficult. Many coaches are skittish about using a zone and will change when the opponent makes two or three shots or grabs a few offensive rebounds. The Shockers never did enough in the second half to make Redbirds coach Dan Muller consider a move.
“We’ve played a lot of zone over years and we’ve tweaked some things,” Muller said. “How hard Justin (McCloud) and Paris were playing their part up top is what gave it the most problems. Then you have to … rebound out of a zone. That’s not always easy and we did.”
▪ Kenpom.com gave Illinois State a 1.5 percent win probability when it trailed 37-21.
▪ WSU has been so dominant in MVC play, it’s easy to forget this is how most of the college basketball world works. It’s hard to win on the road. The Redbirds are the MVC team not blown away by WSU’s physical talent, as the last two meetings prove.
“I would say we match up with them athletically as well or better than any team in our league. I think we know that,” Muller said. “They can overwhelm you athletically, especially in our league.”
The Redbirds played like the team the MVC selected to play the Shockers on the final day of the regular season. They have won five of six games and are tied with Evansville in second place. They play at Evansville on Thursday and get fourth-place teams Southern Illinois and Indiana State at Redbird Arena.
The path is there for Illinois State to finish strong and wrap up the No. 2 seed in the MVC Tournament. The goal is to avoid WSU as long as possible in St. Louis.
▪ Weird game.
The Redbirds missed a ton of easy shots in the first half. They had to be mystified.
In the second half, the bounces went against the Shockers, who couldn’t grab loose balls or rebounds. Baker drove to the basket for a layup and ran into Grady (or Grady was pushed into him) and missed.
The Shockers made two good defensive stands late in the game. Lee made a stepback jumper to foil one. Then Morris fouled Hawkins with one second on the shot clock and Hawkins made two free throws for a 51-48 lead.
▪ WSU did a job on Illinois State’s MiKyle McIntosh, who is turning into one of the Valley’s top players. He went 0 for 10 and scored four points after averaging 17 points over the previous seven games. Wessel and Rashard Kelly blocked his drives and made him shoot guarded shots, frustrating McIntosh.
Most games, that’s a good start to a victory. Plenty of other Redbirds stepped up.
▪ The Shockers lost a game in February for the first time since 2013. They had won 17 straight.
The Redbirds defeated a ranked MVC foe at home for the first time since 1984, when they beat No. 9 Tulsa at Horton Field House. It is their second over a ranked opponent at Redbird Arena.
▪ WSU’s RPI dropped to No. 32. Its kenpom ranking dropped to No. 16, down five spots.
The goal for WSU should be to avoid seeds 7-10 in the NCAA Tournament. While they’ve beaten a No. 1 and a No. 2 in recent years, it’s not something you want to make a habit of.
According to Bracket Matrix, the Shockers were a No. 7 seed as of Saturday. A No. 6 seed remains possible, but WSU shouldn’t lose again, at least until the final of Arch Madness.
Next up: at Drake (6-18, 1-11), 7 p.m. Tuesday (Cox 22)
The Shockers enjoy a get-well game against the Bulldogs, who are the worst defensive team in the MVC by any measure. Opponents are making 38.5 percent of their three-point shots against Drake, the 23rd highest rate in the nation. WSU defeated the Bulldogs 67-47 in the MVC opener.