Having called the Shockers' shocking upset(s) in the NCAA Tournament last year I was very excited to see what Wichita State -- which beat a good, experienced, defensive-minded Saint Louis team 70-65 on Sunday -- looked like a year later. The win over SLU has propelled the Shockers into the top 10 of the coaches poll (No. 11 in the AP), but did I find them to be truly one of the 10 or 11 best teams in the country? There's a lot to like about Gregg Marshall's program, but to be fair, the answer right now is not really.
In truth, it may have been especially difficult to determine how good Wichita State is based upon the SLU game, as the officiating was in a time warp to last season and there was no emphasis on the new "freedom of movement" rules.
In spite of that, the Shockers -- who struggled shooting at times last year -- are a better scoring team than a year ago. In the backcourt, Ron Baker and new point guard Fred VanVleet can both shoot the ball from three. Baker -- who can score as a two-guard and is big and strong around the basket -- has a chance to be the best player in the Missouri Valley this year. What has changed is Wichita State's need for him to become a backup point guard, after D.J. Bowles was lost for the year due to a heart condition. Baker isn't a great point guard, but he gets the job done and it gets him involved in the offense more often. Tekele Cotton is a solid mid-range scorer and very good finisher at 6-2, and while he isnt a three-point shooter, he knows it and takes good shots. In terms of transition scoring, Baker and Cotton are exceptional athletes who are strong and tough.
Also great in transition is forward Cleanthony Early. Early is a vital weapon as a face-up four man who has the green light thanks to deep range and the guts to take a shot whenever. Early also finishes well above the rim, including in transition, and can run as he smells points. As a pro prospect he may lack ball handling and post-up game, but he is a definite "3 and D" candidate. Chadrack Lufile is the Shockers' best big man, can score a little at the block and is solid on his second-shot offense.
So if the shooting is better, and they are solid in transition, they are better right? I'm not sure, as a matter of fact, I kind of think they may have some issues at times offensively.
Last season Malcolm Armstead bailed them out time and again in the conference and NCAA tournaments with his penetration. VanVleet, though a crafty passer and excellent shooter, simply doesn't seem to have that gear. Wichita doesn't have enough dribble-drive players to account for the new officiating guidelines and get them to the line.
Up front, they do not have back-to-the-basket scoring. Last season the Shockers used undersized veteran Carl Hall for post seals, and ducked him in, but they do not have such a big man this year. Early is very talented, but he is a catch-and-shoot or go to the rim guy, he is not a post-up player nor is he a put-it-on-the-floor player.
But the biggest issue with Wichita State is its bench, which is giving the team very little right now. Swingman Nick Wiggins looked a bit lost against the defense and pressure of SLU and 24-year-old center and Louisiana-Lafayette transfer Kadeem Coleby looked out of sorts as well. The Shockers' only perimter player off the bench is Evan Wessel who isn't athletic enough to really help them at either end. Forward Darius Carter might have a chance to help them as the season wears on, but needs seasoning.
At the end of the day, the Shockers are tough, smart and experienced, but lack a penetrator, depth and low-post scoring. Tennessee and Alabama are coming up on the December schedule to help prove Wichita's top 10 legitimacy, and the depth will likely be challenged in those contests.
There's still much to like about this team, which should be the champion of a Missouri Valley that is a a bit down. Many of the top teams in both the country and conference would want no part of the Wichita State "Play Angry" style. Koch Arena is rabid as ever, which helps, as does the confidence that comes with reaching a Final Four. But I am talking big picture, top 10 team kinds of issues, not small-time issues, and in that context the Shockers have some problems.
Does this mean cancel Christmas? No, it just means if Wichita State wants to (and they do) be judged with the elite of college basketball, Marshall and Co. -- Top 10 ranking or not -- have some issues to address to truly arrive at that level.