The Wichita State basketball traveling road show hit a new venue Tuesday afternoon, the Sanford Pentagon. Which seems fitting, given the way the Shockers play defense and destroy opposing teams with a stockpile of deadly weapons.
It was Memphis left to pick up the rubble after the Shockers’ 71-56 win.
Wichita State has a cruise missile in Tekele Cotton, who glides through the air and explodes with enough ferocity to shake a city. It was a mammoth Cotton dunk early in the second half that jump-started a Shocker offense that had been struggling and sent Wichita State on an 11-0 run that resulted in a 15-point lead.
The Shockers have long-range bomber Ron Baker, who finally nailed the team’s first three-pointer of the season – after 18 misses – with 16:27 left. After not scoring until the final minute of the first half, he finished with a game-high 21 points.
WSU has a submariner in Fred VanVleet, usually one of the shortest players on the floor. He’s hard to find and once you think you have him, he usually slips beyond detection. VanVleet weaves his way in and out and is especially good striking quick to the basket.
The Shockers have inside power in Darius Carter and Evan Wessel and a bunch of young infantry, freshmen who are learning the ropes under Drill Sgt. Gregg Marshall.
So despite a slow offensive start – and slow barely describes how difficult it was for both teams to score early – the Shockers were able to rely on defense to build and keep a lead. It was just a matter of time before Wichita State figured it out offensively.
This is a tried-and-true formula for the Shockers. Memphis had 24 turnovers and a bunch of traveling violations. The Tigers knew what they were trying to do offensively but weren’t prepared for the Shockers to get in the way of almost everything they did.
“Tonight it was about the defense,” VanVleet said. “With me and Ron and Tekele out front, we have three guards who can guard and interchange with one another and that makes it tough for every team. I’m not the athlete Ron and Tekele are, but I’m speeding them up and we’re reading off each other. We definitely have a good chemistry about where the ball is going to be.”
The Shockers scored 15 points in the game’s first 15 minutes, 17 seconds. But Memphis had only 12. And it wasn’t long before Wichita State’s offense heated up.
“Figuring it out,” is how VanVleet put it. “It’s been like that since I’ve been here and it’s part of what makes Coach Marshall so good. It makes it easy for us when we can rely on defense and defensive rebounding while we’re figuring it out on offense. It’s a matter of feeling out the game, the officials, the team we’re playing and this setting. All of it.”
The Pentagon is different. It seats 3,250 in an intimate setting with an old-school feel and parquet floor. It’s a neat place and the Shockers enjoyed playing here, especially after they started making some shots.
VanVleet, Baker and Cotton combined for 46 points while Carter added 12, including the first six of the game. Those four took 49 of the Shockers’ 62 shots and this is how it’s going to be, at least for a while.
Marshall is going to ride these veterans hard. WSU did open up a 23-point lead a couple of times in the second half, which allowed the Shockers to go to their bench. And it’s a developing bench, a long way from where Marshall hopes it is in a month.
Those veterans, though, are well-suited to get the Shockers out of tight spots. They know what they’re doing. They probably finish one another’s sentences.
“When you play basketball with someone for 2 1/2 years, you start to get a real good feel for what they’re going to do when they have the ball,” Baker said. “But this is something we need to build off. We’re going to watch tape of this game and try to get better.”
The Shockers have won 37 of 38 games and 41 of 43. There’s a formula here and it works.
Which is only fitting when you’re playing at the Pentagon.