The Crimson Tide basketball team will take on the Wichita State Shockers tonight in New York City's Madison Square Garden in the NIT Final. Tip-off is set for 6:00 CST, with the game being televised nationally on ESPN2.
Just like the actual Final Four, which features two mid-major programs, Wichita State will be carrying the banner of the mid-majors into the NIT Final. One thing should probably be pointed out about those three mid-major teams, though. Among Butler, VCU and Wichita State, Wichita State is probably the best team. That's right, if you look past the teams' "resumes" (and we of all people know those can be misleading as to a team's real strength), Wichita State actually measures up favorably almost any team in the country.
What their "resume" was lacking, that ultimately knocked them down from NCAA Tournament contention to the NIT, was enough "good wins". However, when you break down their overall record, look at how close their losses were, and examine their efficiency numbers, you see a tale of a team that is far better than a #4 seed in the NIT would seem to indicate. When you add to that the absolute tear they've gone on in the NIT thus far, many people feel that not only do the Shockers belong in the NIT final, but that they should be the favorite to win it.
Wichita State began their NIT run with an absolute thrashing of Nebraska (a one-time NCAA bubble team) at home, followed with an overtime win on the road at Virginia Tech (a team most thought should have gotten in the NCAA Tournament), and then clinched their spot in New York with a home win over College of Charleston. Perhaps their most impressive win of all, however, came on Tuesday evening in Madison Square Garden as they humiliated Washington State (another NCAA bubble team) in one of the biggest beatdowns you'll ever see in postseason basketball.
The Shockers are now 28-8 on the season, with 6 of those 8 losses coming by five points or less. They had a non-conference record of 9-3, with the only losses coming to NCAA Tournament #2 seed San Diego State and Final Four teams UConn (by 4 points) and VCU (by 1 point). Their wins included two against major-conference foes (Virginia and LSU). They went on to finish 2nd in the Missouri Valley Conference with a 14-4 league record (all four losses by 5 points or less), before being upset by eventual MVC Tournament winners Indiana State. As evidence of their strength, they are currently ranked #28 in the Pomeroy ratings, ahead of Alabama (38th), Butler (39th) and VCU (49th).
Wichita State might not have the name recognition of a major conference team, but make no mistake about it: Alabama will have to play extremely well tonight to take home the NIT title.
Full Wichita State roster breakdown and game analysis below the jump...
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall employs possibly the most balanced lineup in all of Division I basketball. No player plays more than 26 minutes or scores more than 11 points per game. Meanwhile, 10 different players play at least 14 minutes and score at least 4 points per game. It's very difficult to single out which players to key in on because, in reality, Wichita State doesn't really have key players--they simply work together as a team and pretty much any player on the floor can hurt you.
The only player who averages double figures in scoring is 6'8" senior forward J.T. Durley, who plays 25 minutes per game and averages 11.2 points per contest. He is second on the team in rebounding with 5.0 boards per contest. He has shooting range out to the 3-point line, as do most of the players in the Shockers' rotation.
6'4" junior point guard Toure` Murray is perhaps the most crucial player for the Shocker offense. He leads the team in minutes played and assists, and is third on the team with 9.4 points per game. He has 3-point shooting range but isn't known primarily as a shooter. He is probably the best Wichita State player at beating people off the dribble, and he draws a lot of fouls.
6'4" junior guard David Kyles is the team's best outside shooter. He doesn't start, but he plays 23 minutes a game and is second on the team with 9.5 points per game. He averages just over 2 made treys each game while shooting a very good 39% clip from the arc.
Another 6'4" guard, senior Graham Hatch, starts in the Shocker backcourt. He plays the role of "glue guy" in that he doesn't score a lot, but provides senior leadership and makes big plays when needed. He averages 6.0 points per game and averages exactly one made trey each game while shooting 41% from the arc.
6'0" junior point guard Joe Ragland has also been in the starting lineup in recent games. He is tied for third on the team in scoring with 7.1 points per game and is second in assists with 2.8 per game. He averages nearly one made trey each game while shooting 32% from the arc.
6'5" junior wing player Ben Smith averages 6.8 points per game, and like nearly every other perimeter player on the team, he averages right at one made trey each game, shooting 39% from the arc. Smith also has the ability to use his size to score inside the arc as well as getting to the free throw stripe.
6'2" sophomore guard Demetric Williams is the final perimeter player in the Wichita State rotation, averaging 4.2 points each game.
7'0" junior center Garrett Stutz is possibly the most dangerous player in the Shockers' rotation, but he only averages 15 minutes per game. Despite such limited minutes, he averages 7.1 points and 3.5 rebounds each game and has at times been dominant on the inside. He will certainly be a player to watch.
6'8" senior forward Gabe Blair starts alongside Durley in the post, and leads the team in rebounding with 6.5 boards per game. He also scores at a rate of 6.6. points each game.
Yet another senior, 6'9" Aaron Ellis, is the final post player in the Wichita State rotation, averageing 4.4 points and 3.5 rebounds each game.
The Shockers are a very, very deep and experienced team. They have 4 seniors, 5 juniors and a sophomore in their 10-man rotation, and they are very good on both sides of the ball. They rank 30th in overall offensive efficiency, behind only Kentucky, Colorado, Vanderbilt, Florida and Purdue among Alabama's opponents this season. They have a very balanced offense, able to score in bunches both inside and outside the arc. They are also a good offensive rebounding team, and they are especially efficient at scoring in the paint, presenting a big challenge for Alabama's interior defense. Their only weakness is that they don't draw fouls at a high rate. Alabama's biggest challenge defensively will be to keep the Shockers from getting easy buckets inside. If they can do that, Wichita State's shooting percentage from the 3-point line isn't all that great, even though they always have four players on the court who can shoot them.
On the defensive side, Wichita State is ranked 46th in overall efficiency. They are extremely good at preventing points in the paint, a huge red flag for an Alabama offense that relies on scoring there more than any team in all of Division I basketball. The Shockers also rank 3rd in the nation in defensive rebounding rate, so relying on second-chance points won't work in this one. The Wichita State defense is not ranked among the nation's elite, but it matches up nearly perfectly with Alabama's offense.
Given the way these teams match up and the way Wichita State is playing right now, this game will be an immense challenge for Alabama. It will be very, very difficult for Alabama to win this game, so hope for the best. Regardless of the result, tonight will be our final game of the season. This team has been a real joy to watch, and while a loss wouldn't change much about this season or the direction the program is headed, a win would sure be a satisfying way to end this ride.