Match-up: 3 Wichita State Shockersvs. 7
TV: CBS ()
Date and Time: Thursday 3/26, 7:15pm EST
Location: Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, OH
Wichita State earned an at-large bid to theafter a 17-1 Missouri Valley Conference regular season and 28-4 record overall. They were upset in their conference tournament's semifinals by Illinois State, preventing a heavily-anticipated rubber match between them and Northern Iowa in the MVC Championship game.
Their victory over 10 seed Indiana in the Round of 64 was defense-optional, with the Shockers able to outscore the Hoosiers, largely from the free throw line, en route to 81 points. They followed up that win with an impressive, dominant victory over in-state rival Kansas, as the Shockers shot the lights out and had the Jayhawks out of rhythm in the entire second half following a late run in a first half in which they were mostly trailing.
The win over Kansas was the Shockers' most impressive on the season. Their only other top 25 RPI victory was over Northern Iowa, with whom they split their two games, as the home team took each by double-digits. They nearly had another one in December when they lost at Utah by 1 in overtime.
Wichita State has just one other top 50 RPI win over Tulsa. They also took two out of three against 62nd-ranked Illinois State as well as their aforementioned victory over Indiana as quality wins. Wins against Memphis, Alabama, and Seton Hall have turned out to be not nearly as impressive as they may have looked earlier in the season, much like their loss to George Washington looks worse now than before.
Overall, however, much like Notre Dame, they avoided the bad loss, winning all 20 of their games against teams ranked over 100 in the RPI. The top end of their schedule does not compare, which is to be expected from a mid-major, but they've acquitted themselves really well all season no matter who they've been playing against, which culminated into a great win over Kansas over the weekend and has them competing for a spot in the Elite Eight.
The tournament's Selection Committee rated Wichita State as the 26th best team in the field, an absurdly low ranking for a top 15 team in the polls and in KenPom's rankings most of the season. Now, after their two tournament victories, the Shockers actually rank 9th in the country according to KenPom, one spot ahead of the Irish. Interestingly, their 17th place in the RPI before Selection Sunday was just one spot behind 16th place Notre Dame, further evidence of just how even this match-up is likely to be.
Basically, for one of these teams to be a 3 seed and the other to be a 7 is fairly ridiculous and would completely misrepresent the Irish as a substantial favorite in this Sweet 16 match-up. Unlike the Irish, who certainly statistically tip more offensively in the efficiency scales, the Shockers are more balanced, ranking 16th offensively and 13th defensively, again according to KenPom.
Like Butler, Wichita State is an excellent rebounding team, although statistically, the Bulldogs are actually better, and the Irish, which are not nearly as proficient as either team on the boards, out-rebounded Butler on Saturday evening. Doing so again would really help Notre Dame's chances. The Shockers are fairly efficient from the floor (51% eFG), but not nearly as much as the Irish (58.4%), so limiting high-percentage second chance points could be a huge factor in maintaining that edge.
Wichita State, like Notre Dame, is in the top 5 stingiest teams in the country when it comes to turning the ball over. However, they are much better at turning over opponents, so that is one spot where they may be able to develop an advantage. They get to the free throw line with roughly the same frequency as the Irish, although Notre Dame holds a clear advantage in actually making them. We can also likely expect a slower-paced game, although the Irish would prefer getting out in transition more than the Shockers, who are among the lowest in the country (316th) in possessions per 40 minutes.
The Irish are clearly the better offensive team on paper, but defensively, the Shockers have certainly demonstrated themselves to be stronger of the two, so the question is whether they will be able to neutralize the Irish offense to the degree that Butler did. Wichita State's balance on both ends of the court appears to be an edge for them, although I think qualitatively, Notre Dame has shown itself to be just as competent lately, as they have moved up over 60 spots in KenPom's defensive efficiency ratings just in March alone.
- G - 6-0/195
- 6 - 6-3/205
- G - 6-4/220
- G - 6-4/218
- F - 6-7/245
- F - 6-7/261
- F - 6-6/213
- F - 6-7/232
- F - 6-11/232
The Shockers have one of the few starting lineups that Notre Dame actually has beat on size. They play four guards around a big man for the most part, although they are probably more apt to play with two bigs with guys off the bench than are the Irish.
Their two biggest focal points on offense are Van Vleet and Baker, whom I would imagine will draw Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia, respectively, for much of the game as their defenders. Vasturia, in particular, will be tasked with keeping Baker from going off, especially from beyond the arc where he is exceptional, much like he did Kellen Dunham of Butler.
Wichita State has a host of players who can get hot from three, really with the exception of Cotton of their primary backcourt players, and if they replicate their 10 of 20 that they hit against Kansas, it could very well be season's end for Notre Dame.
Down low, Carter really gets them going, averaging double-figures despite only playing about 20 minutes or so a game. He is not the most efficient post player from the field but he is a bear on the boards and could easily get some put-backs offensively if Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson cannot neutralize him. In general, that will be a big factor in this one, whether the Notre Dame rebounding attack looks more like what we saw against Butler rather than the disappointing effort that allowed Northeastern to stay in the game. In general, everyone in the Shocker lineup really gets after it on the boards, which is something for which the Irish need to be ready.
The Shockers bring a lot of size off the bench. They have four subs who have logged minutes in the tournament so far, but it seems like they mostly seek the most effective pair to each earn 12-15 minutes for the given match-up. Still, despite what looks like a deeper bench, three of the Shockers' starting guards will play 37+ minutes, the fourth will get 30-35, and their lone starting post player will be the one ceding most of the bench minutes. It's not a markedly different bench strategy than Notre Dame's.
I dug into the numbers above and certainly speculated some potential keys to this one on paper, but we know that once the ball tips off in these types of settings, you can throw those things out the window. The team that wins is probably going to outperform its norm in some category on paper, or the team that loses will underperform in another it might appear to have an edge, or some combination of both for both teams. Bottom line is, these are two excellent teams, both top ten teams worthy of standing among the final eight teams in the bracket. Neither of them is necessarily better than the other, on paper or with the eye test, and I think most of us expect this to be one of the best and most interesting games in this round of the tournament.
The Shockers have had an interesting path to get here, and one that's (rightfully) earning them a ton of praise. Against Indiana, they just outscored the Hoosiers, largely from their 34 attempts from the free throw line. Against Kansas, they turned the Jayhawks over and shot the lights out, shooting better from 2, 3, and the free throw line than their season averages in each category. Now, however, they face an Irish team that is top 5 in the nation in keeping opponents off the free throw line and avoiding the turnover, not to mention has performed much better defensively in recent weeks than they had for much of the season. Wichita State's path to victory in this one likely needs a different script than their impressive first two games, and I'd hate to rely too heavily on the recency bias of their impressive win over Kansas to think that they will replicate that performance again on Thursday.
Notre Dame, however, has been grinding it out in these first two games, largely on the defensive end, in sharp contrast to their ACC Championship game victory that saw them score 90 against North Carolina. Being able to adapt and win any kind of game is, in my mind, a huge factor for March success, and this season's Irish have demonstrated that throughout the ACC and NCAA Tournaments.
From an intangible standpoint, they have the "get to the second weekend" monkey off their collective back and could very well return mentally to the more free-flowing unit we are used to offensively rather than one that appeared to be too tight at times. I went against the Irish for Saturday night's game specifically because, until I saw them pull one out in this tournament, I thought they had a psychological burden that would just be too much to overcome. Now they have and can just return to playing ball, not overcoming a decade's worth of tournament failures all in one night.
They also have a player's coach who recently suffered a major personal loss, so it is easy to imagine a team with that little extra motivation that may come up huge this time of year. In general, from a distance, this Notre Dame team should be locked into a nice middle ground between being hungry for not just a spot in the Elite Eight but a coach that they love playing for, while also being able to stay loose with some demons exorcised (not to mention an extra day of rest and preparation).
The Shockers, on the other hand, just won a game that was somewhat their Super Bowl, the in-state game they have been waiting for years to play and will be talked about for years to come in Wichita. They also have revenge on their minds in looking ahead to what would likely be a rematch with Kentucky, who knocked off then-undefeated Shockers in last year's tournament. Do they have that extra motivation and focus all week on this game against this opponent, or are they divided between a historic win on Sunday and the possibility for more history on Saturday? I suppose if any coach can get that out of them, it's Gregg Marshall, although he is reportedly entertaining offers from Alabama at this point.
But in a close one down the stretch, who will come through and do just enough to get the win? I'll take the team with that little edge all week, the guys with no reason to look back or ahead, and a group that has shown consistent ability against top competition to do what it needs to do on whichever end of the floor it needs to do it to scratch out tough wins. The Irish in a close one to move onto the Elite Eight.
Notre Dame 77
Wichita State 72