Dayton Coach Archie Miller was blunt to reporters in his assessment of Wichita State after it manhandled his squad in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday night: “I don’t think you’re going to get a 30 or 31[-ranked] team with that depth who can fire that amount of bodies at you. Their depth and size in the three, four and five position is as good as anyone in the country. … a No. 4 seed.”
But the Shockers, despite the opinion of many including their own coach, Gregg Marshall, are seeded 10th in the South Region. It might be unfair, but it sets up perhaps the most anticipated matchup of the round of 32: Wichita State vs. No. 2 Kentucky on Sunday.
Three years ago as an eight seed, Kentucky upended the top-seeded Shockers, 78-76, in a classic game that was efficiently played (both teams scored more than 1.20 points per possession), slow-paced (123 total possessions), and featured a thrilling display of athleticism by both sides. Can the rematch reach that game’s heights?
Marshall has always heavily relied on his bench, but this season’s squad — as Miller noted — defends in waves. Roughly 43 percent of the team’s minutes go to reserves. This allows Marshall to cycle through different defensive schemes, but each is grounded in keeping opponents off the glass (the Shockers grab 76 percent of defensive rebounds, which ranks fourth nationally) and aggressively pressuring ballhandlers on the perimeter. The team doesn’t look to force turnovers; it wants to keep opponents off balance and unable to execute their offense.
Per Hoop-Math.com, Wichita State allows opponents an effective field goal percentage of 42.3 on non-transition plays, which ranks third in Division I. Opponents attempt nearly 30 percent of their shots at the rim but make just 49 percent of those shots, which also ranks in the top 10 of Hoop-Math.com’s defensive rankings. That has always been underlying structure of Marshall’s defensive game plans — physically disrupting the opponent without fouling.
Wichita State’s defense could be pivotal against Kentucky. Offense does not come easily to this Wildcats squad. Coach John Calipari wants his team to run as much as possible — 28 percent of the team’s attempts are in transition — because when his team’s half-court offense produces an effective field goal percentage of 51.4 percent.
Though the Wildcats will undoubtedly attack the rim and will try to get to the free throw line as much as possible (a free throw rate of 42 percent), it’ll be interesting how an offense loaded with athletic bodies but not much pure unassisted scoring ability outside of Malik Monk meets a defense that seeks to utterly wear down opponents.
On the other side of the ball, Kentucky’s defense is trending upward: 0.93 of a point allowed per possession in its last four games. A small sample size, yes, but Calipari’s squad is finally beginning to lock down opponents. The Wildcats are skilled at chasing opponents off the three-point line and then funneling ballhandlers to the interior, where led by Bam Adebayo, they put on a shot-blocking clinic (13.2 percent).
Both teams rank among the top 15 nationally in both KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency rankings.
Where the game might ultimately tilt in one team’s favor is on the glass: both squads are skilled at hauling in their own misses and then keeping opponents from securing additional possessions. If those rebounding percentages hold true, this could again be an instant March classic. A low-possession, high-octane round-of-32 game that, if the selection committee wasn’t trying to troll both teams, should have occurred in the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight.