Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The “sheep” were right about Wichita State

By Steve Kallas (posted by Rick Morris)

Well, it was pretty clear that it was going to be virtually impossible, given their extremely tough bracket, for the undefeated Wichita State Shockers to win the National Championship.  In fact, it was hard to believe that they could get to the Final Four.  To do so, they would have had to have beaten Kentucky, an eight seed that should have been a four or a five (remember, they lost to overall number one seed Florida by one in the SEC Championship game), Louisville, a four seed that should have been a number one or two seed (probably playing better than anyone in the country on selection Sunday) and the winner of Michigan-Duke, the two and three seeds, respectively, in their region.


Aside from the competition, the Wichita State coach, Gregg Marshall, put his team in a difficult position with his ill-advised “Wolves do not fret over the opinions of sheep” quote when asked, before the tournament, if he was worried about the criticism that his team had played a vey weak schedule.

It almost made it hard to root for a team that, despite going 34-0 in the regular season, hadn’t beaten a ranked team all season (they had a nice win over St. Louis when St. Louis was an unranked team).  Their conference, the Missouri Valley Conference, was particularly weak this year, with only Indiana State and Northern Iowa (in addition to undefeated Wichita State) being over .500 in the conference.

So it was a very fair statement to say that Wichita State was going to have a very tough time advancing in the tournament.


Well, you know what happened.  Kentucky played the game of its young life (for this team) and beat Wichita State, 78-76, in what can only be described as a great college basketball game.

In a fascinating interview with Mike Francesa on WFAN on Tuesday, coach Marshall still didn’t seem to quite get it.  He said that it was hard to have to “justify being 34-0 and a number one seed.”

What?  Stop right there! This was the same guy who only a week earlier said that “Wolves don’t fret over the opinions of sheep.”  So it was his job to ignore all the criticism. 

But was it really criticism?  It says here that the right-minded “sheep” simply pointed out the obvious; that is, that Wichita State hadn’t beaten anyone really good all season.  That’s not an opinion – that’s a statement of fact.  And even if it was criticism, coaches and teams should be able to ignore that.  That is one of the signs of a champion.

Still not getting it, Marshall went on to tell Mike Francesa that “some of the detractors even finally in our loss had come to the side and the realization that hey, maybe this team was a great team.”

Well, not exactly.  Marshall seemed surprised that Wichita State earned more national respect from losing to Kentucky than from going 35-0.  But that makes perfect sense.  Kentucky easily played their best game of the year and is peaking at the right time (which is what you would expect in modern-day college basketball with a very young team, which is what Kentucky now seems to be every season).  They are, right now, playing as well as anybody in the country.  So, of course Wichita State earned more respect in their only defeat.

Why is that a surprise?


Mike Francesa asked the right question when he asked the coach what he was looking for on the final play.  While Mike tried to cover for the coach by saying that his point guard was shooting 46% from three, the reality is that Fred Van Vleet, who had a great season but this day would have a terrible shooting game (1-6 from the floor, 0-4 from three, including the final shot), was probably the last guy you wanted to take the final shot.

How do we know this?  Well, earlier in the interview, Marshall said that Van Vleet couldn’t get in his “rhythm” because of foul trouble.  In addition, Marshall said that Van Vleet, in trying to take a charge, which resulted in his third foul, hit his head on the floor and “was a little woozy” during the game.

So back to the final play.  Option one, according to the coach, was Cleanthony Early getting a back screen for “either a lob or a post-up to tie the game.”  Coach Marshall then half threw his best player (an unconscious 12-17, 4-6 from three for a game-high 31 points) under the bus by saying Early “really didn’t make a great cut” and “he was reluctant on his cut.” More on this in a bit.

Option two was Ron Baker on a screen into the corner.  Clearly Baker, who was 7-12 and also 4-6 from three for 20 points, was the best second option. But Julius Randle, guarding the inbounder, dropped off and essentially doubled Baker. 

Option three was Van Vleet, who got the ball, dribbled left, then dribbled right, had a good look and threw up a brick that kind of hit the backboard and the side of the rim at the same time. 

Game over.






During the interview, coach Gregg Marshall said that, because Cleanthony Early didn’t cut hard to the basket, “his man, Willie Cauley-Stein, contested the shot.”
While Cauley-Stein DID contest the shot (although Van Vleet got a good look), there’s no chance that Cauley-Stein was guarding Early.  In fact, he was guarding #12, Darius Carter, who was just clogging the middle to set a screen.  James Young was guarding Early from the get-go on the final play and stayed with him throughout.

Did the head coach of Wichita State not know that or was he being disingenuous?

Draw your own conclusion.


Well, it should have been the play, one way or another, to get the ball in Early’s hands.  Unconscious the whole game, the best player on the floor, the hottest shooter, to send him 30 or 35 feet from the in-bounder for a maybe lob or post-up was not the wisest choice.  To be fair, on replay, it seemed that, for a split-second, a lob might have worked if Early had gone all the way to the basket.  But with 3.2 seconds left, it would have been better to get the ball in quickly to Early and let him work his magic.

It says here that it would have been better to send Carter for the lob, take the seven- footer Cauley-Stein with him and then get the ball to Early for a three or a drive.  Again, to have your best player and best shooter (on this day) run AWAY from the ball, which was inbounded side-out from north of the top of the key, wasn’t a great plan.


Well Mike Francesa was right that Kentucky hit a lot of big threes and they haven’t made threes like that all year.  They were a stunning (for them) 8-18 from three.  It says here, however, that their excellent foul-shooting was not an accident.

Again, against number one overall-seed Florida, just a week earlier in the SEC Championship, Kentucky came of age.  In that one-point loss to the number one team in the country, Kentucky was 21-26 from the free throw line (81%) and 5-6 down the stretch.  Against Wichita State, then, you couldn’t be shocked that they went 16-22 from the free throw line (73%) and 6-8 down the stretch.

So why did Wichita State lose?  Well, their last three possessions were Tekele Cotton (a good player having a bad offensive game – 1-4 from the field) missing a three with 1:10 left, Ron Baker banking in a three (Kentucky also had a banked-in three earlier in the game) with 29 seconds left and Van Vleet missing a three at the buzzer.

No shots from Early, easily their best player/shooter on this day.


Not really.  There are no great teams in this tournament.  In fact, there are rarely great teams in college basketball anymore.  From the UCLA glory days of Alcindor and Walton, when freshman couldn’t play (so they could get acclimated to college life), the college game has transformed to a “one and done” scenario, where some top players only play in their freshman year and then go on to the NBA (whether they are really ready or not).

So neither Wichita State nor Kentucky is a great college basketball team.  They just don’t make them like they once did in college basketball. But Wichita State and Kentucky did play a great college basketball game.

One final thought:  there was video of coach Gregg Marshall telling his team that they were the first team ever to start 35-0.  While that is true, it seems to miss the fact that all of those undefeated UCLA teams, usually 30-0, never played 35 games.  That’s just another thing to remember when comparing then and now.

Wichita State had a great season.  They weren’t the best team in the country and they had virtually no chance to win the national title.  They played great against Kentucky and lost.  They should have been a number one seed and were awarded one by the selection committee.  But that same committee killed them by giving them the toughest bracket in this year’s NCAA tournament.


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