Sean Keeler breaks down Wichita State's chances in the Final Four against Louisville
By SEAN KEELERFS Midwest
1. The ability to dance to every tempo
Shockers aren’t pretty. They aren’t all that complicated, either. Badger the snot out of you until you miss, then grab the rebound and try to push it the other way. If there’s a nutty carom off the rim, get your backside in position and own it. If there’s a loose ball on the floor, dive for that puppy like it’s the last sack lunch on the planet. Crazy as it sounds, Wichita has the horses to run with Louisville if Saturday’s first national semifinal becomes a track meet, and probably won’t hesitate should the opportunity arise. If there’s a chance to break the Cardinal’s press, coach Gregg Marshall trusts his backcourt enough to give them the green light. The Shox are more than comfortable to ugly it up, too, showcasing the offensive range of forwards Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall on quick-hit plays and in half-court sets. The less pleasant this contest is on the eyes, the better chance Wichita has of sticking around: The Shox rank 20th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage (38); Louisville ranks 242nd nationally in defensive rebounding percentage (66.8). If it somehow becomes a grind-it-out, want-to kind of tilt, how badly will Louisville want it?
The list of tombstones this month is long, storied, and paved with bricks. Pittsburgh star Tray Woodall: 1-for-12 from the floor, 0-5 on treys. Gonzaga stud Kevin Pangos: 6-17 from the floor, four turnovers. La Salle sharpshooter Ramon Galloway: 4-15 from the floor, four turnovers. Ohio State catalyst Aaron Craft: 2-12 from the floor, 2-7 from beyond the arc. Through four NCAA tourney games, Wichita’s perimeter defense has taken the opposition’s best backcourt threat and turned them into a liability. Up next, the Shockers’ greatest challenge awaits — in the form of Bracketville’s baddest hombre, Louisville guard Russ Smith. Of all the individual matchups Saturday night, how coach Gregg Marshall elects to deal with the 6-foot-1 Smith — who’s averaging 27 points in the Dance and is the runaway favorite to be crowned tourney MVP — might be the most fascinating one of all. Wichita guards Malcom Armstead, Tekele Cotton and Ron Baker are rough-and-tumble types with excellent feet, a group with linebacker bodies and linebacker mentalities. The Shox have been making a lot of really good guards look silly this month, and that trio is the major reason why. In the Cards’ five losses, Smith shot just .321 from the floor and a miserable .130 (3-for-23) on his 3-point attempts. If he’s wild, this game could get wild in a hurry.
3. That whole ‘Play Angry’ thing? It’s real
Angry? The Shockers don’t just play angry. When they’re right, they play with a nasty, vengeful aftertaste. It’s the perfect storm of rising blood pressures: A program that growls about how it’s unloved and overlooked (and has to share a neighborhood with Kansas and Kansas State, neither of which has shown much interest in settling it on the basketball court), led by a coach who talks as if no one takes him seriously (although that number is shrinking by the day), directing a roster of overlooked local kids and transfers, all thrown together to represent a blue-collar, unfashionable Midwestern town. Marshall has always given off an us-against-the-world sort of vibe, and that tone has never been more apropos than it will be this weekend against the heavily favored Cardinal. Wichita already took out one top seed in Gonzaga; in the eyes of the Shox’s players, the number before the name on this weekend’s dance card means absolutely nothing. “This team has done better when nothing’s been expected, when they’re the underdogs, which we’ll really be on Saturday,” Marshall said earlier this week. “When they’re picked fourth in the (MVC) preseason (poll) after losing the five seniors (from the previous year). I just think that’s when we’re at our best.”
Wichita will ‘D’ you up like a pack of wildebeests, happily, for as long as it takes. The Shox are strong, relentless and physical — basically, the closest thing the Valley has to Michigan State. But what they haven’t been, at least up until the last two weeks, is a great jump-shooting team. Wichita endured a scoring drought of almost seven minutes in the second half of a regional final win over Ohio State, allowing the Buckeyes to chip a 20-point second-half lead down to just three. According to stat guru Ken Pomeroy, Louisville is the most efficient defensive team in the country; Even if you do break the press, you’ve got 6-11 center Gorgui Dieng in the paint to try and shoot over. Like the Cardinals, the Shockers are better offensively when they can turn an opponent over and get easy buckets in transition. But against Louisville, nothing figures to come easy.
2. The Cardinal Press
The Shockers survived 40 minutes of “Havoc” last November 13, winning at Virginia Commonwealth, 53-51. Still, Wichita also turned the rock over 13 times in that contest, and Louisville has the big-time length up front — the Shox outboarded VCU, 35-32 — that the Rams didn’t. For the season, Wichita ranks just 216th nationally in turnovers per game (12.7) and just 198th in overall turnover percentage (19.5). The Shockers have multiple players who can handle the ball, yet Marshall has put an awful lot of trust as of late in the hands of freshman guard Fred VanVleet. The first-year Illinois native played only four minutes in that VCU victory and turned it over three times during that stretch, so chances are good he’ll be tested by Pitino’s defensive gameplan.
3. The First-Time Factor
As good a story as Marshall and his Shockers are, experience counts when the lights burn at their brightest: Since the 2000 Big Dance, first-time coaches in the Final Four have posted a combined record of 7-17. No 9 seed has ever reached the championship game, and of the three teams to make a Final Four with a lower seed than Wichita State, none danced all the way to the title tilt. The Shox are carrying the flag for every underdog in the nation right now, and that can become an awfully heavy burden once you’ve reached college hoops’ biggest stage. Just ask George Mason and VCU.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org