Three mid-majors advanced to the Sweet 16, but now only one remains. Wichita State beat La Salle to earn a spot in the Elite Eight, set to play Ohio State on Saturday for a trip to the Final Four.
But can the Shockers shock the college basketball world and beat one of the Big Ten’s elite teams? It will come down to a few important factors, most importantly forward Cleanthony Early.
When Wichita State struggled during a stretch of the Missouri Valley schedule this season, it was a matter of the offensive stalling in the half court and going long stretches without scoring. That typically meant both Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall (now sans his signature dreads) were not involved or were kept from getting involved.
Look at Early in particular to see why Wichita State has been able to make this run. In two games when he was most important to the Shockers, against Pittsburgh and Gonzaga with their size inside, he was a focal point of the offense and he produced. Against Pittsburgh, Early had 21 points and seven rebounds then following that up with 16 points and seven rebounds against the Bulldogs.
Not only that, but Early did it in differing ways. Against Pittsburgh, he was 0-of-6 from three-point range but was able to get to the line and hit seven of his eight free throws. Against Gonzaga, it was nearly entirely reversed. He was 4-of-7 from three-point range against the Bulldogs and did not make a trip to the line.
Ideally, Early would strike a balance between the two versus Ohio State. The typically stifling Ohio State defense would be hurt by either getting into foul trouble or an effectively spaced Wichita State attack.
That also means that Wichita State point guard Malcolm Armstead will need to limit his turnovers and be a facilitator on the offensive end of the floor. If Armstead is strong with the ball, that opens up quality shots for the Shockers and gives them the best opportunity to shoot a high percentage. That high percentage, in turn, keeps Ohio State from getting out in transition with point guard Aaron Craft and the rest getting creative in the scattered court.
Keep those factors in check means Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas will have to work for his points. It’s difficult to completely neutralize Thomas, but working to contain him gives Wichita State the best chance to win.
Either way, even being careful with the basketball and hitting shots, Wichita State needs to be ready for a grind on Saturday. Don’t expect an 87-85 game like Friday night between Kansas and Michigan. We just won’t see it.
Tip off is at 7:05 p.m. ET.