Key statistics: The Shockers outscored Davidson 28-11 at the foul line and turned a halftime deficit of five on the boards into a plus-four by game’s end. WSU forced 15 turnovers and scored 18 points off those errors.
How the game turned: WSU couldn’t shake the Wildcats until Fred VanVleet made a three from the win for a 71-64 lead with 3:48 to play. Tekele Cotton followed that by blocking a dunk to help the Shockers on a decisive 7-0 run that handed them a 75-64 lead with 1:43 to play.
Records: WSU 13-0, DC 4-9
- How good are the Shockers? The end of non-conference play is the logical time to take stock. Davidson coach Bob McKillop is more qualified than most to answer after playing five ranked (at game time) teams – No. 4 Duke, No. 25 Virginia, No. 19 New Mexico, No. 14 North Carolina and WSU. Duke, Carolina and WSU are still ranked. All five remain in the top 53 of the RPI rankings. McKillop said the Shockers are highly ranked for good reasons. “They do everything,” he said. “They score inside. They score outside. They score in transition. They score at the foul line. Their defense is superb. They do a terrific job of closing down the paint and closing down penetration.” He called Cleanthony Early an NBA player and said Cotton reminds him of former Butler star Shelvin Mack, now with the Atlanta Hawks. “This is a very well-balanced team, and they’ve got the three-headed five man and they all present different problems,” McKillop said.
- So McKillop is impressed, as he should be. A team doesn’t go 13-0 and win three road games and two on a neutral floor without serious game. However, nothing exposes a team’s weaknesses like conference play. All five starters played 30-plus minutes on Sunday and the reserves combined to shoot 4 of 10 and score 10 points with six rebounds, two assists and five turnovers. After scoring in double figures vs. Saint Louis and Oral Roberts, Chadrack Lufile has scored four points on 2-of-5 shooting the past three games as Darius Carter has taken his minutes. Nick Wiggins and Evan Wessel continue to shoot poorly, although Wessel’s rebounding (12 in the past three games) and the fact he rarely turns the ball over make his minutes productive. Lufile and Kadeem Coleby played 15 minutes and didn’t get a rebound. The Shockers need bench scoring or a ton of defense and hustle plays, preferably both. Last season’s team survived a rash of injuries largely because seniors Demetric Williams and Ehimen Orukpe played their best basketball during those stretches. Should injury or foul trouble strike a starter, the Shockers are low on reserves who are inspiring that level of confidence. We’ve seen players such as Wiggins, Wessel and Lufile contribute more for varying amounts of time, so that could change quickly. The games come twice a week now, so depth is important.
- My guess is MVC teams will force WSU’s big men to win games until they show they can consistently make defenses pay. They will throw a lot of defensive attention at VanVleet and Ron Baker and make Carter prove he can score and handle the ball against double teams. Early can ruin those plans if he continues to score efficiently and get to foul line at a good clip. If teams can turn him into primarily a jump shooter, he is less effective. Not many teams will own the personnel to wear down VanVleet, but I would throw everything at him, try to tire him and get him in foul trouble. He leads WSU in minutes played for two reasons. He is that important and WSU lacks a true backup at point.
- WSU is shooting 32.8 percent from three-point range and it has two players – Baker and VanVleet – shooting better than 31 percent. Early made 3 of 6 Sunday and it would help immensely if he can continue his positive trend from deep. Since making 7 of 30 (23.3 percent) in his first seven games, he is 12 of 32 (37.5 percent) in his last six.
- The other warning sign for WSU is the non-conference schedule which, despite great intentions, is trending toward good, not great. Neither Tennessee nor Alabama is an NCAA Tournament team at this point. BYU has lost three in a row, while maintaining a top-30 RPI. The Shockers really need Saint Louis (RPI rank No. 66) to win at Vanderbilt on Monday. WSU scheduled tough and went on the road. While it’s paying off with a No. 12 RPI, it’s not yielding a bounty of top-50 victories. That kind of hair-splitting may hurt come seeding time for the NCAA Tournament. On the plus side, SLU should rise in the RPI by playing in the Atlantic 10 and Oral Roberts has a fighting chance to remain a top-100 win despite playing in the miserable Southland Conference. If SLU can return to the top 50, it can be the same kind of landmark road non-conference win that VCU was last season. Not many teams get those.
- In one three-game stretch (SLU, ORU, Tennessee), Early took 15 threes and four free throws. In the past three (Alabama, NC Central, Davidson), he has taken 15 threes and 22 free throws (making 20). That second guy is the preseason MVC Player of the Year.
- Early is off to a good start on back-to-back MVC player of the week honors after his second straight double double. In his past three games, Early is averaging 22 points and 8.3 rebounds on 52.6 percent shooting. “Tremendous game for him,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said.
- Davidson shot 42.9 percent, although it seemed like the Wildcats made every shot when it needed a basket to quiet the crowd. The Shockers seemed pleased with their defensive effort. “We want to get back to guarding and defending man to man,” VanVleet said. “I think we got away from that a little bit. Effort-wise, energy and intensity, we might not have always executed perfectly, but overall we guarded them pretty well. That’s a team that can put up 90 on you very easily. They like to play fast-paced.” While the Wildcats made 39 percent of their threes (11 of 28), Baker said the Shockers did a good job of defending their sets and making them put the ball on the floor to make plays. That likely contributed to the 15 turnovers committed by the Wildcats. “We knew their motion was going to have a lot of stagger (screens) because they’re all pretty good shooters,” Baker said. “We didn’t give up that many shots off staggers. Most of their threes were drive and kicks, so we did a pretty good job of that.” Davidson’s five-man motion offense, usually with at least four capable shooters, isn’t easy to guard. Their big man was often a good enough shooter to pull the Shockers away from the basket. Shooting all those jumpers, however, meant the Wildcats rarely got to the foul line. They’ve been outscored at the line all season and that trend continued.
- Marshall improved to 152-70 at WSU. He needs three wins to tie Gene Smithson (155-81) for second on the career wins list. Ralph Miller (220-133) is first.
- It took me awhile, but I found the last visiting player to score more than North Carolina Central’s Jeremy Ingram’s 37 at Koch Arena. Texas-Arlington’s Steven Barber scored 38 points in a 2001 game, won by WSU 102-89.
Next up: at Southern Illinois, Thursday (ESPN3 only)