Until the NCAA tournament begins, I will be writing pieces on how to defeat some of the top contenders in the nation. First up, 2014's lighting rod, Wichita State.
Let's start with what Wichita State does well. The Shockers really get after teams defensively, and are one of the best contenders at preventing opponents from taking threes. They also pound the defensive glass, allowing opponents to grab just 25.7% of their misses, despite not having a ton of size. Offensively, Fred Van Vleet has been, statistically, one of the best point guards in the country. He shoots over 50% from two, over 40% from three, and barely turns the ball over.
That said, I think the #1 way to get at Wichita State is to attack Van Vleet defensively. After watching a lot of Wichita State games, I still am not sure how they'll react when they play a team that is as athletic or more athletic than they are. If the referreeing returns to the nonconference levels of emphasizing contact up top, it is possible to get him into foul trouble. Again, because of Wichita State's schedule, it is almost impossible to tell how they'll fair against athleticism, but it is worth noting that against Tennesse, Van Vleet was just 1-5 from two and had 5 assists, 2 turnovers and 2 fouls. Against Alabama and their star PG Trevor Releford, he shot 3-7, had just 1 assist (and 1 TO) and committed 3 fouls, while the Shockers allowed more than a point per possession. He struggled a bit against St. Louis's Jordair Jett as well, committing three fouls and 4 turnovers.
That's not to say Van Vleet's season is a mirage; far from it. And obviously Wichita State won those games where he struggled. But I do think it points to the possibility that a team can frustrate him athletically, and hope that without a huge edge at PG, Wichita State becomes just another team and more vulnerable to an upset.
As to the size issue, Wichita State is just 144th nationally in effective height (read here for a primer) at +.4, but they rank 2nd in the Missouri Valley. Not only has the league not been a very strong one, it's been a very small one. Because of this, it's natural to assume the rebounds won't be as frequent in the NCAA tournament (although they did rebound well against basically everybody, major conference foes included, this year) and when that is such a big part of your defensive profile, those extra few possessions can kill you.
It seems impossible that I've gotten this far without mentioning Cleanthony Early. The man 10th in the kPOY standings, and a player I had on my national player of the year shortlist to start the season, Early takes quite a few more shots than anyone else on the team and, like Van Vleet, can score both inside and outside. He's a matchup problem as a 4, and few teams have the type of post defense who can both handle him inside and go out and guard him on the perimeter. Because of this, I almost think it would be wise to go zone against Wichita State, and turn them into jumpshooters. Ron Baker (37% on 160 threes) and Early (36% on 147) are the guys who take the most threes, so it's imperative to get out on them and not let them get open shots. It was mentioned in CBS's Scouting the Contenders series, and I totally agree, that making Ron Baker handle the ball a lot is a good idea. He's not turnover prone by any means, but in the sample of Wichita State games I watched he was a lot worse when he had to put the ball on the floor for an extended period of time. Lastly, as I mentioned yesterday, the Shockers, despite their size, don't get to the rim all that often, which could be a harbinger of a potential upset if those jumpers aren't falling.
Offensively, the way to attack Wichita State is pretty easy on paper: just dump it inside to a post guy. With the aforementioned lack of size, it should be easy to score inside, or get the Shockers in foul trouble, right? It hasn't exactly worked out that way, though it is worth noting that the Shockers are 83rd nationally in giving up shots at the rim (but, more illustrative for this exercise, are 24th in FG% allowed at the rim. Both stats via hoop-math.com). I assume a lot of it is just because they haven't played teams with great post up offenses, but then again how many of those teams are out there these days? In this week's Power Rankings, Luke Winn had a nice look of post up offenses, and it looks like the Shockers might want to stay away from the much talked about 1-2 showdown with Kansas.
Wichita State is a very good team, and they're certainly a Final Four threat. But, because of their schedule, it's impossible to tell how they'll react to a team with great athletes, or a team that can overwhelm them size wise. Exploiting those two matchups are the key to taking down the Shockers.
TL;DR version: get Van Vleet and Early in foul trouble. Let Baker drive. Dump it down inside as often as possible.