Just to preface this one more time, these previews are not some implicit guarantee of a Michigan victory on Saturday. As I'm guessing there are some new people visiting the site these days, we've been running these posts throughout the tournament with the idea that it would be nice to have done a bit of scouting ahead of time so people have something to read should Michigan advance.
For whatever reason, I've been taking the underdog thus far (Akron and FGCU), so I'll keep that tradition of writing posts that will probably end up being pointless by taking a look at Wichita State. If you want a first look at Louisville, check out Zach's post from yesterday.
For all of the hype that FGCU received for its improbable run to the Sweet 16, the Shockers have "quietly" made it to the Final Four, beating eighth-seeded Pitt in the first round, first-seeded Gonzaga in the second, La Salle in the third and the Big Ten Tournament champion Ohio State Buckeyes in the Elite 8. Regardless of how you feel about Gonzaga's seeding, that is an impressive run. For a 9-seed to make it this far, it's impossible to not put a few big bucks up on the mantle along the way.
The Shockers finished the pre-Big Dance schedule with a 26-8 (12-6) mark, losing to Creighton in the Missouri Valley Conference title game, 68-65. Nonetheless, the Shockers' resume was impressive enough to warrant a second tourney bid from the MVC.
Head coach Greg Marshall piloted the Shockers to non-conference victories at VCU on Nov. 13 and a 12 point victory against Iowa in Cancun. The Shockers dropped their other relatively notable non-conference matchup at Tennessee, 69-60.
During the conference slate, the Shockers went 1-1 against Creighton in the regular season. Other than that, they dropped both contests against 21-15 Evansville and went on a three-game losing streak in late January/early February against Indiana State, Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois (the latter two on the road).
Since that losing streak, the Shockers have gone 11-3, including the four victories in the Big Dance. Personally, I didn't get a really good look at Wichita State until the Ohio State game this past weekend; simply based on that one data point, it's hard not to come away impressed with the mettle of this squad. As we know, it's not exactly easy to go up by as many as 20 points against a defensively dominant team like the Buckeyes. Lo and behold, with 12:10 to go in the game, the Shockers were up on the second-seeded Buckeyes, 53-33.
I'm not saying that Wichita State is going to knock off Louisville, but don't be completely flabbergasted if it does in fact happen. I guess this is where I would mention something about Butler going to two straight championship games. In Butler's second trip to the title game against UConn, they were an 8-seed, so, yeah. This is the tournament, after all.
The Shockers are paced by the spectacularly named Cleanthony Early, a six foot eight inch junior forward averaging 13.7 ppg and 5.7 rpg. He is only a 31% three-point shooter on the year, but against Gonzaga and Ohio State he shot a combined 6/12 from beyond the arc. The pre-thony part of his name is apropos; Early's three-point stroke has indeed been quite clean of late, although it should be noted that he went 0/6 against Pitt in the opening round matchup. If he comes out firing against Louisville, look out.
Six foot eight inch senior forward Carl Hall and senior guard Malcolm Armstead are the Shockers' two other double-digit-averaging scorers, at 12.5 and 10.9 ppg respectively. Armstead has attempted by far the most treys on the team and makes at a respectable clip of 36%. Armstead didn't have a particularly efficient game against the Buckeyes (6/21 from the field, 2/6 from three) but he did pour in a team-high 14 points. Hall had a relatively quiet game, going 3/8 from the field for eight points.
Guards Tekele Cotton and Ron Baker round out the starting five (both are underclassmen). Cotton scored 10 points despite going 4/8 from the line. Although he is in fact a guard, Cotton shoots just 54% from the line, making him an easy target for late game fouling should the situation arise.
Seemingly due to foul trouble, the Shockers did play 10 guys against the Buckeyes, although guard Fred Van Vleet was the only one to log meaningful minutes (24). Vleet was actually the hero of the day for the Shockers, scoring 12 points on 4/8 shooting. Most importantly, Vleet scored 10 of those 12 points in the second half, including a clutch spinning jumper with one minute to go, pushing the lead to six, 67-61.
Vleet was an unlikely hero, to be sure. He averages just 4.3 ppg on the season and just 16.0 mpg. However, he did also come up big against Gonzaga, scoring 13 via a 66% eFG% (albeit on just six shots). Whether or not Vleet can continue this somewhat improbable run of production will go a long way toward determining whether or not Wichita State can stick around late into this game.
Either way, he is the sort of unlikely tournament savior we can all root for; that is, unless he's doing it against your team.
- The Shockers don't seem to play with much pace, at just 64.9 possessions per 40, good for 252nd nationally and 7th in the MVC. Of course, against a team like Louisville that wants to play at the speed of light, imposing their own tempo on the flow of the contest is imperative for the Shockers.
- Wichita State will obviously need to value the ball, especially against the team of wild pressing piranhas that is Louisville. The Shockers ranked 2nd in the MVC in turnover percentage, at 19.2%. It goes without saying that not turning the ball over against MVC squads doesn't really mean much when you're about to face Louisville.
- Cleanthony Early, a JUCO transfer, ranked sixth in the MVC in both field goal attempts and field goals made, just missing the top 150 cutoff nationally. Early can also hit the offensive glass a bit, ranking 9th in the MVC in ORB% (10.4%) and 4th in total offensive rebounds. Once again, doing these things well against MVC competition is obviously not the same thing as doing it against Louisville. On the bright side, Early did grab seven boards against OSU, two of the offensive variety.
There's not much use in spilling too much e-ink here about how Michigan would fare against Wichita State in a hypothetical title game matchup, so I'll leave that for if that actually comes to be. Against Louisville, however, the Shockers have a tall order ahead of them. The Cardinals boast a defensive turnover percentage of 27.5%, second only to, you guessed it, VCU.
Against a squad featuring the always pesky Aaron Craft, the Shockers turned it over 12 times, which isn't bad at all. for what it's worth, Michigan --you know, the team that never turns it over-- committed 13 and 11 turnovers in its two matchups against the Buckeyes.
Regardless, there is no question that this is not a team Louisville can overlook. I'm fairly confident that Louisville will win this game, but in a tournament like this, nothing is guaranteed. With that said, Wichita State will need big performances from all of its primary contributors, plus a secondary scorer or two (e.g. Vleet in two of their last three games).
I'm not saying an upset is at all likely, but I'm saying there's a chance. A small one, but it's there. After all, only the Sith deal in absolutes.