The Wichita State Shockers are impressive for a lot of reasons—their beatdown of geographic rival Kansas and top-10 defense, or for the simple possibility that they can trade punches with Kentucky in a tournament rematch, should WSU defeat Notre Dame later tonight. But at the minimum, praise Gregg Marshall's squad for running some of the crispest sets you'll see in an NCAA tournament in dire need of them.
As exciting as the NCAA tournament's been so far, there's been something very obviously off about many key possessions. Specifically, most of the field's 68 teams have struggled to execute anything remotely resembling an offensive set in the closing seconds of games. Think of the tournament's top moments: R.J. Hunter's disjointed three-pointer in the waning seconds. Down two and the ball in front of their bench, Northeastern's decision to not call a timeout while wasting 27 seconds before turning the ball over. Even Villanova looked off-balance during their loss to North Carolina State. College basketball isn't quite broken, but through the tournament's opening four days we've seen enough baffling, impotent end-of-game sets that the Shockers offense is a welcome breath.
Entering March Madness, the Shockers weren't the most efficient squad—last season's team, the one that won 35 straight games before falling to Kentucky, was much more explosive offensively—but the 2015 iteration takes advantage of the stingiest defenses thanks to its old-ass starting lineup and a familiarity with the pick-and-roll.
Fred VanVleet, WSU's point guard, is the only true junior starter. The remaining four – Ron Baker, Evan Wessel, Darius Carter, and Tekele Cotton—are either seniors or redshirt juniors, and the starters' average age is 22 years old. Only five remaining teams have more experience than the Shockers, per Ken Pomeroy, and since the starters log the most minutes, Marshall feels comfortable essentially allowing them to run the offense as they see fit on the majority of possessions.
There are some points of emphasis, of course. According to Synergy Sports, no other NCAA tournament team uses pick and roll more often and effectively than WSU, scoring .85 points per pick. But while most coaches have playcalls out of the pick and roll, Marshall wants VanVleet to improvise. VanVleet is a 6-foot guard with broad shoulders and a yo-yo handle who rarely turns the ball over. He's the team's anchor, and Marshall knows that VanVleet will assess the situation once he clears the big's hip and either make the correct pass, drive the interior, or pull the ball out for yet another pick and roll.
During the Shockers' second-round embarrassment of Kansas, a game that was effectively over a few minutes in the second half, WSU ran the same pick and roll play on three possessions over a two-minute span: Carter and Wessel set a double pick for VanVleet, and after the guard turned the corner, Carter rolled to the bucket and Wessel popped. The squad scored five quick points and forced Kansas to shift from a man defense to zone.
Thing is, Wichita State is just as effective against a zone. During their opening round game, Indiana used a 2-3 that extended well beyond the three-point line whenever VanVleet touched the ball—the sort of pressure that's thrown the brakes on a lot of offenses this tournament—trying to force the ball out of his hands and to another Shocker. Didn't quite work out for them.
Midway through the first half, the junior used a hesitation dribble to freeze the help defender, then used that sliver of space to slide open for a jumper. Twenty seconds later, VanVleet passed out of a pick to Baker and, because the IU defense was so keyed on VanVleet, Zach Brown was wide open in the left corner for a three—another five points out of consecutive possessions.
It's easy to rely on the pick-and-roll when you have two guards, in VanVleet and Baker, who shoot 37 percent on threes and have the speed and bounce to bypass the peskiest guards. But that aside, Marshall uses it as a staple of the offense because of how it inverts the offense. Wichita State's first look is often on the block, using cross and down screens to free Carter or another Shocker big for an efficient shot at the rim.
If that doesn't work, like in this play, VanVleet will reset the offense atop the perimeter and instruct the big to set the pick, which then lifts the defensive frontline and clears the paint for the Baker-VanVleet show.
Still, Marshall doesn't just roll the ball onto the court. He's got all the appropriate bonafides among those who've worn out their DVR rewinding and rewatching the Shockers' play calls.
Take this play during the first half against Kansas. After passing the wall to the wing, VanVleet runs off a screen set by Carter. The big swings the ball to the opposite wing, and then sets another screen for a cutting Brown, and then another for a secondary cut by Baker. Kansas defended the set well, so Carter again pops for a missed 17-footer, but Marshall's simple motion afforded WSU four different looks.
Marshall also has some juice coming out of timeouts, but it's Baker who's the coach's go-to in these situations. The 6-foot-4 wing has the sort of skill set you're used to seeing from pros on these sorts of calls: he squares quickly for a jump shot, and has just enough speed to rip the ball through and finish near the bucket.
When Wichita State takes the ball out from under their basket, Baker will start near the baseline and flare to the free throw line. He can take the defender off the bounce on the catch, as he did against Yogi Ferrell, or he can wait a beat and then rise over Wayne Selden for a 10-footer.
And if a help defender cheats, Wessel, a 6-foot-4 mop of hair who made 35 percent of his threes this season, is a pressure valve in the corner.
Once Marshall senses opponents have figured out that flare, he'll position Baker on the wing and run him off interior flex cuts. Here, Carter feints like he is going to set a pick for Cotton, but then sets a screen for a curling Baker.
Wichita State hasn't had many close games this season—just two have gone into overtime—but the squad still executes as if they been hard-luck in late game situations.
Against Indiana, the Shockers hadn't scored a field goal in five minutes, but led by two points with sixty seconds remaining. Marshall called a timeout and diagrammed two option play: the first was to screen a cutting VanVleet (that was covered) and the second was a VanVleet backscreen for Cotton on the left wing (that wasn't covered). Cotton threw a gorgeous head-fake at James Blackmon Jr. and dove for the game-securing lay-up.
Both Indiana and Kansas tried to speed up the typically glacial Shockers pace, but the combination of veteran play, astute play calls, and pinpoint offensive execution has propelled the Shockers into the Sweet Sixteen.
This isn't the same dominant squad that ripped through the Missouri Valley a year ago, and maybe they aren't a threat to go all the way, but at least they know what they're doing. In this year's tournament, that's virtue all on its own.
Photo by Jamie Squire / Getty Images Sport