Shox don't need Carter to be great -- but they need him on the floor
Darius Carter doesn't necessarily need to be great for the Shockers; he just has to be, well, present.
Over a 75-game span over the previous two seasons, former Wichita State post star Cleanthony Early played in 21 minutes or fewer in a game on just 18 occasions. Team Play Angry went 14-4 in those tilts, a winning percentage of 77.8.
In the 57 contests in which Early was on the floor for 22 minutes or more, the Shockers went 51-6 -- a percentage that jumped to 89.5.
As Tuesday night's 77-68 victory over Seton Hall reminded us, even the Law Firm of (Fred) VanVleet & (Ron) Baker & (Tekele) Cotton needs a little support from time to time. Something in the paint that keeps defenses honest. Or distracted. Or both.
Enter Carter, the 6-foot-7 senior from the Rust Belt, who racked up his second double-double (16 points, 12 boards) with the Shockers, and his first since an 11-point, 13-rebound performance in a win over Tennessee last Dec. 14.
The Early parallels aren't absolute, of course: Cle was a Stretch-4, a lean and quick 6-8 but just as comfortable on the perimeter as he was posting up. At 245 pounds with a pair of smokestacks for arms, our No. 12 is more of a Power-3, a face-up forward with a face-up shot, capable of carving space for himself in the paint or, if left alone, stepping back 10-14 feet for a jumper from the wings.
Or, if you prefer, creeping into the paint in order to posterize the hell out of people. With 1:14 left, shot clock winding down, a driving VanVleet found Carter setting up left of the lane, where he dropped a one-handed slam that pushed the hosts' lead to 77-62.
The Shox outboarded the athletic Pirates by five at the half (16-11) and by three for the night (32-29). More to the point, big No. 12 had a lot to do with that, logging a career-best 35 minutes and picking up one personal foul. That last number is of particular significance, given the relative lack of experience among the rest of his frontcourt peers on coach Gregg Marshall's roster; when Carter got into foul trouble at No. 13 Utah last Wednesday night -- fouling out with 2:28 left in regulation -- the taller, emboldened Utes flipped an earlier deficit and started building up a lead and a frothing home crowd. A stunning final 60 seconds or so by the Shox forced overtime, but when the dust settled and things got squared away during the extra session, Carter was notable by his absence.
A 16-minute, four-point follow-up last weekend in a rout of Saint Louis feels more like an exception than the norm for Carter, who went into the Seton Hall tilt averaging 10.7 points and 3.8 rebounds. Mind you, he also missed a wide-open, uncontested alley-oop feed with 18:11 to go in the second half.
And even at 6-1, the Play Angry Gang is still far from the finished product. After the Shox went up 66-46 on a Baker trey, the Pirates outscored the hosts over the final seven minutes by a margin of 22-11. The foul shooting was, shall we say, mixed; VanVleet was 8 for 8 from the stripe, while the rest of the crew went a puzzling 5 for 15. No. 23 might have to pick up more of the scoring slack this winter, but he's riding a 12-for-33 (.364) run from the floor over his last three contests.
Early on, the bricks seemed contagious before defense turned a pile of steals and Pirate miscues into a series of run-outs; after missing eight of their first 11 attempts, the Shockers drained 10 of their next 15. Cotton's dunk off the fast break -- Seton Hall turned it over 12 times over the first 20 minutes -- padded the hosts' lead to 30-18 and extended the Wichita run to 16-5. A couple minutes later, with 2:27 to go in the half, another Shocker layup -- this one from Baker -- pushed that run to 20-5 and the lead to 34-18.
A win that started with style had some substance, too. It's a victory over a foe in the Ratings Percentage Top 50 (the Hall came in at No. 25), the Shockers' first of the young campaign. And there's a chance for at least one more, pre-conference, on the docket with a home tilt against Alabama (No. 27 RPI) coming up next Tuesday.
The Pirates (7-1) are a tough-minded group, while Seton Hall freshman guard Isaiah Whitehead is fearless (23 points, four boards, four treys) and, occasionally, senseless. After draining a 3-pointer that trimmed the Shox's lead to 36-23 with 1:05 left in the first half, the kid from Brooklyn performed a pirouette in front of the home bench. Marshall, who doesn't miss a trick himself, pointed that out to the nearest official; the man in stripes promptly whistled the hotshot teen for a taunting technical.
If Whitehead was the best player on the floor, the Shockers were the best team -- and certainly a more balanced one than just a week earlier. Of the seven shot attempts the Shockers put up in overtime at Utah, only two were layups or dunks. Unlike Salt Lake City, Carter finished this song with a smile. Unlike Salt Lake City, the Shockers did, too.