No. 11 Wichita State won a thriller over Alabama last, using a 13-1, press-fueled run to knock off the Crimson Tide, 53-52, on a Darius Carter dunk with 11 seconds left in front of a raucous and intimidating Koch Center.
Over the last five minutes of that game, Wichita State forced four turnovers and held Alabama to just one point while grabbing three huge offensive rebounds during that stretch. It’s the kind of win that we expect Wichita State to get in their own gym, one that was very much predicted by a writer that sees this team play more than most. There are things that you can question about the Shockers, but toughness certainly isn’t one of them.
And while Alabama looked like a team that could end up being a top four-finisher in the SEC this season, they also did a pretty fantastic job of highlighting just what Marshall and his team miss with Cleanthony Early in the professional ranks.
Early was undoubtedly the most talented player on the Shocker roster last season. Standing 6-foot-8, Early played the four for Wichita State, as he had just enough strength and athleticism that he wasn’t going to get manhandled at that spot. Offensively, however, Early was more of a natural three, a guy that not only had three-point range but the perimeter skill and explosiveness to beat people off the dribble. Anyone that saw the Kentucky-Wichita State thriller in the Round of 32 of last year’s NCAA tournament can attest to that.
Defenses had to be aware of where he was at all times. They had to game-plan for him and figure out a way that they could slow down an NBA small forward with a college four-man.
It created an easily exploitable mismatch, one that Marshall no longer has the luxury of using. In Early’s stead is veteran Evan Wessel, a decent shooter that’s “just-a-guy”, and freshman Rashard Kelly, who is a promising prospect but not yet ready to give the Shockers half of what Early gave them.
And as good as Tekele Cotton is defensively, as important as he is to what Wichita State does, he’s no more of an offensive threat than he was last year. He’ll knock down some open threes — he was 0-for-4 against Alabama — and he’ll throw down some impressive dunks, but there’s not a coach in the country that will lose sleep trying to figure out how to stop Cotton.
The result is that the Shockers are going to go through stretches this season where scoring will not come easy to them.
I love Fred Van Vleet. He’s as good of a college point guard as you are going to find, but he’s a good-not-great shooter — he’s down to 25.8 percent from three and 39.6 perfect from the field this year — that isn’t a plus-athlete. He’s a guy you ideally want initiating offense and running a team, attacking closeouts and defensive rotations created by Early and Ron Baker, not a guy being asked to carry a heavy-load offensively.
But that’s what he’s going to have to be this season.
Now, to his credit, Baker is having a terrific season, and Darius Carter has proven to be a real threat in the low post. Their improvement is part of the reason that the Shockers will likely remain in and around the top 20, at the least, throughout the season. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that Wichita State can lock down defensively as well as anyone.
They certainly aren’t “bad”.
But instead of being a real Final Four contender and one of the nation’s elite, like they were last season, this Shocker team is just another group trying to find a way to win a league title and play their way out of the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend.