Vanderbilt's opponent in the First Four in Dayton is the Wichita State Shockers. The Shockers are making their fifth straight tournament appearance under Gregg Marshall, but this time they just barely snuck in after losing to Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament semifinals.
The Shockers have a record of 24-8 (16-2 MVC), but importantly, they went 0-3 in the AdvoCare Invitational in November with starting point guard Fred VanVleet injured. In the 29 games they've played with VanVleet, they're 24-5, with the five losses coming against Northern Iowa (twice), Tulsa, Seton Hall, and Illinois State.
But it's also true that the Shockers have not beaten that many elite teams. In a down year for the Missouri Valley Conference, Wichita State's best win came against Utah (KenPom: 29) at home on December 12. Their second best win was over Northern Iowa (KenPom: 76) on January 20, and as noted above the Shockers lost their other two matchups with the Panthers.
Still, Vanderbilt is going to have a difficult time with Wichita State, even if -- aside from a game against Iowa (KenPom: 20) which the Shockers lost by 23 points with VanVleet out -- Vanderbilt might be the best team that they've seen all year.
Wichita State can defend. Like, really defend.
The last time that an opponent scored over a point per possession against Wichita State? January 6. Evansville scored 64 points in 62 possessions; since then, Wichita State has played 18 games and no opponent has cracked a point per trip. This is a very good defense, #1 in the country in defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy, and what's more, the Shockers don't have an obvious weakness on the defensive end. Shooting percentage? The Shockers' defense allows opponents an eFG of 44.8%, good for 8th in the country. Turnovers? The Shockers forced turnovers on 23.2% of possessions, 5th in the country. Rebounding? Opponents get rebounds on 23.7% of their own misses, 5th in the country.
About the only thing Wichita State's defense doesn't do well is avoid fouling, as they're 326th in the country in FT Rate (free throw attempts divided by field goal attempts) -- and even that might not be too much of a disadvantage with referees' tendency to "let them play" in the NCAA Tournament.
How do the Shockers do it? Well, they do use some full-court press, but they're not really pressing to force turnovers -- rather, it's often an effort to slow down the offense bringing it up and prevent you from running (though they will cause plenty of turnovers in their half-court defense.) If you watch them play defense, they have five players who are really good defenders. They switch on screens regularly, preventing the offense from getting an opening -- and since generally four of the players on the floor are going to be similar to one another, and they're all good defenders, this doesn't lead to any mismatches that the offense can take advantage of.
Even the fact that they don't have a lot of length isn't really a problem, even with Vanderbilt having Damian Jones and Luke Kornet, because what bigs Shaquille Morris and Anton Grady lack in length, they more than make up for in physicality. Utah's Jakob Poeltl had a miserable game against Wichita State because the Shockers played him physically, preventing him from getting good position, and also did a ton to deny him the ball -- Poeltl had four turnovers, or one fewer than he had field goal attempts (though he make four of them -- so if the big man did get the ball in position to score, he was doing exactly that.)
How exactly is this team in the play-in game, then?
That's a good question; part of that has to do with, I guess, the Selection Committee's overreliance on "resumes" (Utah is the only "quality win" on it.) But the Shockers also don't have a great offense, and that's hurt them in their three losses since January.
Neither Illinois State nor Northern Iowa could really crack the Shockers' defense; the Redbirds shot a terrible 27% from the floor (32.7% eFG) and the Panthers shot 37% and 42% in their two wins. Both of them did take care of the basketball, though, but probably the most important factor was that while their own offenses didn't do a whole lot, the Shockers' was even worse in those games. Sadly, none of these games are available for replay on ESPN3 (damn you), but about the one thing the Shockers do well on offense is avoid turnovers. But after ranking in the top 30 nationally for offensive efficiency five years in a row, this year's Shocker team ranks 81st.
Other than Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, nobody for the Shockers averages more than 22 minutes a night, with Conner Frankamp serving as the third guard off the bench and Anton Grady and Shaquille Morris rotating at the five; the other four guys more or less rotate in and out at the forward spots. While Grady and Morris provide some offensive presence down low, most of the time the Shockers' offense can go as far as the two guards will take them. Markis McDuffie is similar to Joe Toye (athletic freshman who's still learning the offense), but if you can contain VanVleet and Baker the Shockers don't really have too many other guys who can hurt you.
What I Expect
Well, if we're being honest, we know what you have to do to slow down Vanderbilt's offense -- force turnovers, play physical defense inside, and deny the big men the ball -- and Wichita State is very, very good at doing those things. For Vanderbilt to score, either Damian Jones and Luke Kornet are going to have to fight through contact or else they're going to need Matthew Fisher-Davis to get hot from three -- and Wichita State's probably not going to give Fisher-Davis or anyone else too much daylight.
With that said, I think that Vanderbilt can slow down Wichita State's offense. When Vanderbilt played Kentucky earlier in the year, I noted that Kentucky's guards have a lot of experience at shooting over big men, but Wichita State's guards likely do not. The key for Vanderbilt, then, is to slow down the Shockers' offense and score just enough on our end to win the game.