Score: WSU 71, Drake 56
Key stats: WSU out-rebounded Drake 45-29, snatching 18 offensive rebounds. Drake missed 10 of 11 threes in the first half.
How the game turned: WSU held Drake to two points in the final 9:30 of the first half while turning a 14-12 deficit into a 30-16 halftime lead.
- When you talk to the Shockers about freshman guard Fred VanVleet, the word that comes up is “mature.” There is no better place for maturity than point guard. “He’s really a mature freshman who’s coming in and doing his thing,” junior center Chadrack Lufile. “He doesn’t turn over the ball a lot. He’s a really good post-feeder. He takes his time, and we really need that.” VanVleet played his best game as a Shocker on Wednesday, scoring 17 points (2 of 4 threes) with nine assists and one turnover in 35 minutes. Of all the guards on the roster, he seems to be the one who most naturally takes the role of getting teammates good shots first and foremost. When VanVleet is playing well, he makes a good combination with Malcolm Armstead, who can move to shooting guard. “It’s a good vibe,” Armstead. “He’s going to get better every game. He gets better every day in practice. He’s being more aggressive and being more comfortable with everything.” VanVleet’s MVC-only stats are quite good for a freshman: 8-22 from three-point range (36.4 percent) and a team-leading 3.0 assist-to-turnover ratio. VanVleet can show a slinky, deceptive way of getting to the hoop and I think his scoring will improve as he gets quicker and stronger. There is no doubt he possesses that pure point guard game, with good passing instincts, change of pace dribbles and a willingness to move the ball.
- WSU coach Gregg Marshall mentioned VanVleet coming into the perfect situation. Armstead and Williams have been valuable to him as mentors and buffers. VanVleet didn’t need to play 28 minutes a game and struggle against better players. He could play when needed and grow at an appropriate pace. There are times when Armstead’s strength and quickness is clearly needed to make WSU’s offense go. The next step for VanVleet is to play well on the road, where he has had mixed success. Games against Missouri State (where he largely faced other freshmen) and Drake (one of the MVC’s softest defenses) are good confidence-builders for tougher tasks upcoming.
- Armstead is also on a hot streak. He has reined in his outside shooting to good results, going 8 for 12 from three in his past three games. In MVC games, he is shooting 40.9 percent from three-point range (27-66).
- The state of the MVC race requires a gloomy look to every happy event. WSU is one game up with four to play. But it might be the most tenuous one-game lead in the history of one-game leads. WSU faces three tough road games – Illinois State, Indiana State and Creighton. The odds of sweeping those games appears small. If the Shockers do that, they will richly deserve their MVC title and a rising seed in the NCAA Tournament bracket projections.
- Drake, Missouri State and Southern Illinois rank in the bottom four of the MVC defending threes. The Shockers took advantage, making 26 of 59 (44 percent) in the past three games. In the past two, better ball movement and a determination to start the offense in the post stands out. Few MVC teams can match WSU’s post scoring and that is an advantage it must max out.
- Tekele Cotton continued to shoot well, an important development. He is a top-level defender who teams ignored on offense for a stretch. That scouting report is changing after he went 3 for 4 and scored eight points against Drake. Cotton is 8 of 14 from three-point range the past five games and averaging 7.2 points.
- WSU guard Ron Baker did dribbling drills and shot jumpers before the game. He wasn’t working full-speed. He is supposed to start taking full-speed jumpers on Sunday, another step in his rehab from a stress fracture to his left foot.
Next up: at Illinois State, 7 p.m. Sunday (ESPNU)