Anthony Grant has long been a proponent of playing tough opponents out of conference play, citing how important it is to test one's team and grab a nice RPI boost before league play begins. Tuesday night, Alabama (6-2) will take on their toughest test to date: a true road game against the #11 Wichita State Shockers (7-1). The Crimson Tide will need to bring their best basketball to Wichita in order to emerge triumphant in the rolling plains of Kansas. These two opponents have become quite acquainted over the years, as this will be the third regular season match-up between these two foes in the last four years, all of which were preceded by the NIT Championship Finale in 2011. Wichita State holds a 2-1 mark over Alabama in said games, though they have all been highly competitive.
The Shockers need no introduction: they have become THE mid-major program in a sport full of them (Gonzaga, Butler, Xavier, etc.). After a Cinderella run to the Final Four two seasons ago, Wichita State ended up being a one seed in the NCAA Tournament a year ago, only to have the unfortunate draw of playing the Kentucky Wildcats, who suddenly started playing like the team full of five stars they actually were last season, in the second round. Even still, that second round game was one of the best of the tournament, and it would be fair to say that Wichita State was clearly a top ten team a season ago (it was their only loss, of course). Gregg Marshall has done a phenomenal job there, and he's got yet another extremely-high caliber club this year. Cleanthony Early is in the NBA now, and the Shockers don't have a ton of returning players back, but they still play an extremely good brand of basketball, and they don't lack for talent.
- PG Fred Van Vleet (13.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 5.3 APG, 2.4 SPG)
- SG Tekele Cotton (10.9 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.6 APG, 1.7 SPG)
- 3G Ron Baker (18.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.4 SPG)
- SF Evan Wessel (4.5 PPG, 4.1 RPG)
- PF Darius Carter (12.3 PPG, 5.8 RPG)
Wichita State utilizes a smaller line-up, as they play a 4 guard look with one true post player in Carter, and even he only stands at 6'7. The Shockers get nearly all of their offensive production from four players, so if any of them are off, it can make them very vulnerable. However, the four of them are usually very good. Baker has been the go-to guy, as his scoring ability has been huge (51.0% FG%, 47.1% 3P%, 75.9% FT%), especially with the aforementioned Early no longer around. He is a guy that Alabama will have to try and smother first and foremost. If Baker can't get good looks, it will place the onus on the rest of the team to make plays happen. Van Vleet is one of the best point guards in the country, but his PPG can be a bit misleading, as he isn't actually a great scorer (37.6% FG%, 23.3% 3P%, 76.7% FT%). However, he is very smart with the basketball (5.3 APG to only 1.5 TOPG), and he plays strong defense (87.4 defensive rating and 2.4 SPG).
Cotton is a lock down type of defender, as he normally takes on the opposing offense's best guard and still boasts a 89.6 defensive rating, to go along with 1.7 SPG. At 44.4% from the floor, he can score, but it's normally on drives to the paint (34.8% 3P%, 50.0% FT%). Wessel is a guy that has had to take on a much larger role than the one that he was accustomed to playing last season. He is more of a glue guy than anything else, as he doesn't make a huge impact offensively, though he can shoot the occasional three (42.1% 3P%). Carter is the key player for this team. As previously mentioned, he is the one guy who can truly bang in the post for the entirety of the game.
- F Rashard Kelly (3.9 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 1.0 APG)
- F Shaquille Morris (4.0 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 0.9 APG)
- G Ria'n Holland (3.5 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 1.0 APG)
- G Corey Henderson (1.7 PPG)
- C Rauno Nurger (3.5 PPG, 1.6 RPG)
- C Bush Wamukota (1.1 PPG, 2.0 RPG)
This is where Wichita State can be taken advantage of. Every single player who sees relevant time off of the bench is a freshman, with the exception of Wamukota, who himself is a transfer player. Kelly and Morris are solid players who have played a strong portion of games due to their 6'7 size. They also are decent scoring threats (both are shooting 57.1% FG%). Holland and Henderson provide relief in the backcourt, and Nurger and Wamukota are both nearly seven feet tall. Kelly is the only player off the bench who plays over 15 MPG, the rest fall between 6-12 MPG.
What To Watch For
- Defense. Gregg Marshall has always molded his teams to buy into tough team defense. This year's Shockers are no different. Tennessee Tech was, in a way, a perfect tune-up for this game, as the Shockers are basically the Golden Eagles on steroids (minus a large individual in the middle), in the sense that they both build their identity off of defense. Wichita State allows only 59.9 PPG, and are ranked #27 in KenPom's defensive efficiency ratings.
- Efficiency. Speaking of which, efficiency might as well be Gregg Marshall's middle name. The Shockers play a more consistently efficient brand of basketball than almost anyone in the country. Not only do they field the #27 defense in the country according to KenPom's efficiency measures, but they also have the 7th ranked offense. Think about that. Despite only having one true pure shooter and only four guys who do most of the scoring, they rank in the top ten in offensive efficiency. This team understands the value of each possession, and they do not take any possession lightly. Take a look at what I like to call the Possession Index (which combines APG and SPG and divides by TOPG) of their starting guards: Van Vleet, 5.13; Baker, 3.55; Cotton, 2.69. Having those three guys run the floor on both sides of the court for most of the game will lead to good things.
- Tarrant's Injury. Ricky Tarrant missed most of the game against Tennessee Tech with cramping issues. Grant says that Tarrant should be good to go, but fans will definitely want to keep an eye out for how crisp the starting point guard looks. If he is truly 100%, that will be huge for Alabama.
Three Keys to Victory
- Rebounding. Wichita State has two weaknesses, one of which is their inability to collect defensive rebounds. This mostly has to do with the fact that the five guys who play the overwhelming majority of the game are all smaller than their respective counterparts. This will again be the case against Alabama. On top of that, the bigger guys off of the bench don't rebound particularly well for the Shockers. Alabama will have the height advantage in this one, they need to capitalize. Offensive rebounds (and thus, extra possessions) will be huge in a game against a team where every possession matters.
- Free Throws. The free throw line has been the other weakness of this Shocker team so far this season, as they only shoot 64.6% from the line. Alabama, on the other hand, has been phenomenal all year from the charity stripe. The Tide is still 1st in the country at 78.8%. That nearly 15% difference could really swing things in favor of Alabama, especially if the Tide can crash the boards with authority and draw frustration fouls inside.
- Stifle Baker. Wichita State maximizes its possessions because they know who is most likely to put the ball in the basket, and that man is Ron Baker. If Alabama can shadow him the whole game and prevent any good looks from coming his way, Wichita State will have to rely on other guys to step up and carry the load. In the Shockers lone loss of the season, the Utah Utes forced Van Vleet to take the reigns as the scorer in the backcourt, and that strategy paid off in a big way.
Alabama has a golden opportunity in the great plains of Kansas this weekend. A win over the Shockers, especially on the road, would do wonders for this basketball team. The Tide has nothing to lose Tuesday night, hopefully Grant's squad will come out firing.
The game will start at 8:00 PM CST and will televised by ESPN2.