Landry Shamet’s dribbling at halfcourt, and while most everyone in Charles Koch Arena is watching, Shaq Morris is staring at Gregg Marshall on the sidelines.
As the shot clock hits 10, Marshall’s hand beckons, and Morris sprints to set a screen for Shamet.
Morris’ defender is late getting into position, so the 6-4 point guard bursts between the coverage into the middle of the floor. He’s got options. Morris is rolling to the rim, Darral Willis Jr. is popping to the 3-point line and on his right, Conner Frankamp fades to the corner. Frankamp’s defender hesitates for a split second. Shamet notices. He throws the pass.
THE AMERICAN PREDICTIONS: Biggest games, sleeper teams, POY hopefuls for 2017-18
Moments later, Wichita State leads Florida Gulf Coast 70-62 with 1:10 remaining, and there’s a sense of relief in the building.
This is the second unexpectedly close home game in a row for the Shockers, and both came on the heels of a loss to Oklahoma in which star freshman Trae Young put on one of the most impressive offensive performances you’ll ever see in a half. Anxieties among the Wichita State faithful are running high as many openly wonder what’s going on with the team’s defense.
In a sense, the Shockers are victims of their own success. They’ve finished in the top 20 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency — a measure of points allowed per 100 possessions and adjusted for the quality of opponents — in each of the last five seasons.
There are high expectations these days.
The players know it, too. Days earlier, senior Zach Brown challenged his teammates in the locker room: “You guys want to be known for being the best offensive team in Wichita State history or the worst defensive team?” The Shockers trailed Arkansas State, 50-44, at halftime, and the slight hyperbole resonated enough with Shamet that he shared it at the postgame press conference after the 87-80 win.
FAGAN: Mizzou basketball still evolving with with Michael Porter Jr. on sidelines
Marshall’s glad one of his players said something.
“When one of their own speaks up and says we need to take more ownership in this, I think it brings a little more credence to the argument that we’re not defending very well right now,” Marshall said.
“I was just saying this team isn’t like Ron and Fred’s team,” Brown told Sporting News days later when asked about the speech, referring to Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, two former Shockers who led the nation’s top-ranked defense as seniors when Brown was a sophomore.
“We were the No. 1 defensive team in the country two to three years ago, and defense is something we always harp on,” Brown said. “You don’t want dudes scoring 80 points on you a game.”
It’s not quite that bad for the Shockers, but their opponents are averaging 70.8 points per game. If it holds, it would be the highest mark of the Marshall era, and there are a few statistical sore thumbs hinting at a difference.
For starters, opponents are taking a lot more 3-pointers with 44.2 percent of their total shots coming from behind the arc, per KenPom. They’re making them at a 33.2 percent clip, high enough that the expected value of the deep balls (0.99 points per possession) is better than going inside where they’re shooting just 43.6 percent.
They’re also getting out in transition more with 25.3 percent of their initial field goal attempts coming in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, per Hoop-Math. It was 19.9 percent a season ago. Nearly all of that difference is accounted for by shots, mostly 3-point attempts, taken quickly after a made basket, and that’s probably why the average possession length for opposing offenses has dipped to 16.4 seconds, the shortest average for Wichita State since KenPom started tracking it in 2009-10.
Then, there’s the turnover rate, a lowly 16.4 percent. 305th in the country, per KenPom. For years, the number hovered around 20.0 percent, peaking during the 2015-16 season when Ron and Fred’s team forced a turnover on 23.2 percent of opponent possessions.
Yet, schematically, nothing’s different.
“We honestly have not changed anything that we’ve done defensively in 11 years. Man-to-man wise, we try to do the same stuff that we were doing from day one,” Marshall said from the dais after the Arkansas State win. “We just have a little better players now than we did in Year One. But, I don’t know if we’ve just hit a bad streak, or if I’m not doing nearly as good enough job, or if the personnel’s just different.”
MORE: Indiana hired Archie Miller to perform rebuild with the Hoosiers, not a miracle
Pieces of the puzzle seem to lie in every corner. The players consistently reference a mental component.
“The biggest thing is just your mindset of taking matchups personal and doing everything the right way every possession,” Shamet told Sporting News. Brown, too, speaks of taking things personally, an homage to the “Play Angry” mantra of old. Rashard Kelly, meanwhile, says it’s about taking pride and “guarding the yard.”
Plenty of credit also goes to the opponents: “We’ve been playing a really, really tough schedule this year,” Brown said.
Indeed, the Shockers non-conference slate is the 29th-hardest in Division I based on the RPI. They’ve faced five teams ranked in the top 50 at KenPom, and another three programs — College of Charleston, South Dakota State and Florida Gulf Coast — picked to win their respective conferences. Half of their opponents played in the NCAA Tournament last season.
“Sometimes you just have to give credit to the offense,” Marshall told Sporting News. “We’re not the only team Trae Young’s torching.”
DECOURCY: NCAA should give Brian Bowen a break and let him play
It may not be the most satisfying answer, but it’s the right one. In college basketball, good offense beats good defense, and when it comes to most of the specific places Wichita State is lagging behind prior iterations, that’s especially true.
Offenses decide how long possessions last. If an opponent wants to make one pass and take a semi-contested shot, there’s very little the Shockers can do about it. The fast play also takes away ball movement that can lead to a turnover. If those same offenses want to hoist a plethora of 3s, that’s their prerogative, and Wichita State can’t stop it without fundamentally changing nearly everything about its defensive philosophy. The Shockers have even less control over whether those 3-point attempts go in.
“[Our opponents] have been playing some really good basketball,” Brown said. “A lot of guys were making a lot of shots.”
Marshall, for his part, hopes it’s an anomaly and that the numbers will fall back in line. The math says they should.
Finally, there’s the matter of personnel. Seven of Wichita State’s rotation players have missed at least one game this season. The most impactful and longest absence has been Markis McDuffie’s. The Shockers’ leading scorer and rebounder from last season missed the first 11 games of this campaign recovering from a stress fracture in his foot. He made his season debut against Florida Gulf Coast, amassing three points, five rebounds, two assists and a block in just nine minutes.
“It’s a lot of rust,” McDuffie said after the game. “I’ve never in my life not played basketball for three months.”
He’s still getting into game shape and needs to build back the strength he lost in his leg while it sat in a cast. Marshall reminds him to hit the gym over the holiday break.
A fully healthy version of the 6-8 forward remains vital to Wichita State’s future hopes. He is a bundle of length and athleticism who moves effortlessly and franticly on the defensive end all at once. There are no other players like him on the Shockers’ roster.
His return will help with those turnover issues, too. Last season, McDuffie led the team with 1.2 steals per game. His 2.6 percent steal rate was tops among the starting lineup. McDuffie’s frantic movement extends to his long arms. He swipes at balls as a help defender and in passing lanes, creating turnovers and easy baskets on the other end.
All of the above is happening in the shadow of the toughest test of the Marshall era. On Saturday, the Shockers will open league play in the American Athletic Conference for the first time after spending 72 years in the Missouri Valley.
MORE: Texas Southern’s Trae Jefferson is the best pound-for-pound player in America
The new league presents a host of new challenges. It has consistently ranked as one of the top seven conferences in college basketball since its inception, per KenPom. In each of those seasons, the AAC has topped the MVC in the conference rankings, and now the latter’s best team is in the former. This season, the AAC has four teams ranked in the KenPom top 50. The MVC has zero.
On paper, it looks like Marshall’s been thinking about the new conference for a while. He hired former UCF head coach Donnie Jones to his staff back in April after Chris Jans took the New Mexico State job. Jones coached in the American for three seasons, but Marshall says the connection wasn’t intentional. This will be the third time in his career that Marshall has coached in a new conference. On both prior occasions, his staff contained a coach with prior experience in the league.
“I’d like to tell you I was smart enough to figure that out,” Marshall said. “So, consciously? No. I tried to hire the best guy and I think I did. Subconsciously? That obviously is a factor. I mean, how can it not be?”
The players haven’t been consciously thinking about the league for awhile now either. They were focused on the non-conference task at hand. Shamet watched film of the American’s point guards while he was injured during the offseason to stay sharp, but his attention shifted once the season started. The preparation also isn’t any different.
“Just like every other game to be honest with you,” Brown told Sporting News. “You watch film and you prepare that way. Learn your opponent’s tendencies. It just goes on from there.”
Brown’s “just like every other game” mentality is very workmanlike and seems to reflect the approach of nearly everyone around the program. There’s some worry about how the defense has played so far to be sure, but nobody’s sounding any alarm bells. It’s business as usual.
“I’m going to continue working on it every day just like I’ve been doing for the last 20 years,” Marshall said.
The good news is the defense isn’t some wild disaster. It currently ranks 26th nationally in adjusted efficiency, per KenPom, just outside of where the team has finished over the last five seasons. A healthy roster and some regression to the mean should get it right back on track.
The Shockers are currently ninth overall in adjusted efficiency margin, thanks to one of the best offenses they’ve had under Marshall. They head into conference play at 10-2, one possession away from 11-1, and they’ve pulled almost all of it off without one of their best players.