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No. 15 Wichita State relying on defense to pile up wins

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The last time Wichita State allowed more than 70 points in regulation, the opponent hailed from the Bluegrass State, was stocked with NBA talent and was headed to the national title game.

It was during last year’s NCAA tournament. The team was Kentucky.

In the 25 games since then, the No. 15 Shockers have battered their opponents into submission with a frenzied half-court defense that embodies their fiery coach, Gregg Marshall. The only team to crack that 70-point barrier was Hawaii in an overtime game that the Shockers still won.

“Their pressure,” Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said, “that stuff? If they get you on your heels, they’re like sharks out there with blood in the water. They just amp things up.”

The Shockers defend so tightly on the perimeter that they could probably share their opponent’s shorts. They collapse so hard around the basket that the paint looks like a mosh pit. They jump passing lanes. They harass inbound plays. They cause ample indigestion.

“You can’t breathe. You just can’t a breath,” Lansing said. “A lot of times you go against a pressing team, you break it, you exhale. This team is different, and we’re not quite ready for the stuff they give — their veterans, their athleticism, the way they play.”

Turns out that very few teams are ready for it.

The Shockers held Bradley to 43 points last month. They held Evansville to 41 a week later, and Drake to 40 a week after that. But none of those defensive performances was nearly as complete as the job Wichita State did against a depleted Missouri State team last weekend.

The Shockers rolled to a 78-35 victory, the fewest points allowed by a Missouri Valley team in 20 years, and the fewest by Wichita State since a 53-34 win over Colorado State in 1980.

Their subpar effort on Wednesday night — Indiana State scored 57 points — ratcheted up their season average to 55.8 points per game. That still leaves the Shockers eighth nationally, and five of the teams better than them are ranked or receiving votes in the latest Top 25. Among them? No. 1 Kentucky, No. 2 Virginia and No. 13 Northern Iowa, a fellow Valley foe.

“We just always focus on defense,” said Shockers guard Tekele Cotton, the reigning league defensive player of the year. “We really want to pressure and make it hard to get the ball across half court, but at the same time, be ready for whatever they have in the half court.”

The last time the Shockers were better defensively, at least in the black-and-white world of statistics, was the 1947-48 season, when they allowed 51.3 points per game. But that was also the era before shot clocks and 3-pointers, when short-shorts and Chuck Taylors were in vogue.

Maybe it’s not so surprising given the guys getting the job done.

Point guard Fred VanVleet is a preseason All-American who has more steals than turnovers. Ron Baker is on the midseason watch list for the Naismith Award. Darius Carter is a bruising patrolman in the paint. And Cotton may be one of the best defensive players in the nation.

The result is more stunning stats like this one: Only four opponents have had more assists than turnovers against Wichita State, and collectively, foes began the weak with an assist-to-turnover ratio that is fourth-worst nationally.

When asked how his players buy in to the defense-first concept, something that has become harder to do in the score-first world of AAU basketball, Marshall offers a simple explanation.

“If they want to play,” the coach said, “they defend and try to rebound.”

Yes, in the team-first world of Gregg Marshall, defense is paramount.

“Some of them just like to watch,” he added, “but most of them like to play.”

The Shockers (22-3, 12-1), who are tied with Northern Iowa atop the Valley, have a tough finishing stretch with all but one of their remaining games against the top half of the league.

If both win out, though, then two of the nation’s top defensive teams will set themselves up for a winner-take-all game in the Valley on Feb. 28 at Wichita State.

Then, may the best (defensive) team win.

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