Ben Miraski, who covers the Missouri Valley Conference for SBNation's, Mid-Major Madness site was kind enough to reach out to OFD this week to exchange insights on Thursday's Sweet Sixteen match-up between The Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Wichita State Shockers. These are Ben's answers to my questions. My responses to Ben's questions can be found on Mid-Major Madness here.
Wichita State finally got the Sunflower State showdown with Kansas they've been dreaming of. Give our readers a sense of the satisfaction in the Shocker fanbase after taking down the mighty Jayhawks on such a big stage?
I think that there is some level of satisfaction in finally getting a chance to prove that they can play with Kansas, especially with this team. They got to show everyone that the last two years were not flukes. This is a good basketball team. There is a fair amount of elation out there, but it is tempered.
The fans also know that they have been here before, and that they are not done. This team, this fan base wants to get back to the Final Four, and potentially finish off what they failed to do against Louisville.
The obvious follow-up to that is if you sense any level of complacency that might lead to a let-down on Thursday evening?
I don't think so, and I don't think that Gregg Marshall would let this team feel "finished" just by having beaten Kansas. It is hard to know what all of these players are going to do after the season ends. Baker and Van Vleet have definite pro possibilities after the last two seasons. They might see this as a final shot to complete the run that they started two seasons ago.
If anything, this team will be more determined to get to the Regional finals, knowing that they may have another shot at Kentucky.
Gregg Marshall has had this team on an amazing run over the last several years. A Final Four appearance, an undefeated regular season, and now a return to the Sweet Sixteen. Marshall won an NIT his 4th year on the bench for the Shockers, and he's built from there. What are some of the pillars of Marshall's program?
Obviously everything begins with defense, and that has been the foundation of this team for the last three years. If you don't play defense, you don't play. You can see that with Evan Wessel, who played out of his mind Sunday.
He isn't the best offensive threat and that is a big downer for having him on the floor normally (again, except for Sunday when he went bonkers from 3-point range). But he is really good at annoying the opponents that he is covering, and he is a very good help defender.
I think the other big thing with Marshall is that there are no "stars," everyone plays as a team, and the players buy into this. He has done a really good job of tempering the effects of having such amazing players on this team and making sure that the accomplishments are measured in team units. If you have ever been to one of his press conferences, he always makes a point to single out a player who is not one of the ones that you have heard of.
And the last thing is just recruiting the best possible players that fit the system. He hasn't let the cupboard go bare. He fills it with the best available player. He has done an amazing job of recruiting some of the best junior college players in the country, and he has actually broken into recruiting some top 100 talent to the team.
Looking at the numbers, this Wichita State team is very difficult to pin down. The word that keeps coming to mind is balance. Like the Irish, they seem to find different ways, and different guys, to beat you on any given night. Is there a specific aspect of the game (rebounding, turnovers, shooting, etc.) that Shocker fans watch to get a temperature of their team? Is there a specific guy to watch for?
I think the two biggest things are watching how Darius Carter begins the game inside. If he is clicking and staying out of foul trouble, things will go a lot easier for the Shockers. Once they go into the bench, sometimes it can be a real crap shoot. You never know what you will get from his backups, so Carter's play is certainly something you need to keep an eye on.
The other thing is how well Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet shoot to begin the game. They aren't normally what you would call streaky shooters, but getting them both going early is a key to making sure there are multiple outlets for the Shockers as they get into a half court offense.
Those two things together should give you a good barometer of how the game will likely go for Wichita State. Now, if you get a hot game from Wessel, all bets are off, because that is something you never count on.
Looking at just the 5 guys who get the most minutes, the Shockers don't look like a very big team; frequently playing with 6'7" Darius Carter as the big. Of course, Marshall has some bigger options on the bench, but the Shockers are in the top 40 of defensive rebounding percentage teams. How does an "undersized" team like Wichita State deal with bigger front lines?
Carter plays a lot taller than he is, and I think the biggest thing that Wichita State does is denial defense. They make sure that the ball stays on the outside and never gets into the post. When you have three amazing defenders like Van Vleet, Baker, and Tekele Cotton, you have the ability to really clog the passing lanes.
Marshall won't hesitate to bring in his bigger players, but he would rather rotate them through a few minutes at a time to give different looks.
But really it all begins on the outside, and making sure it is hard as heck to get the ball to those bigger players.
Give us some insight into the Shocker scouting report on Notre Dame. What's the one thing Wichita State will focus on taking away from the Irish? Who will you have your eye on?
I think the biggest thing is going to be dealing with Jerian Grant and Zach Auguste. Auguste's size is the thing that Wichita State will need to counter for sure, and they will do it like they do everything else, with their guard play.
The most fun matchup to me will be whomever is going to be guarding Jerian Grant. I am guessing this is going to be Cotton. He might be only 6-3 but I can see him matching up pretty well. He did have some trouble with Yogi Ferrell which is the first time all season I have actually seen Marshall have to switch him OFF of someone. If he can't keep up with Grant, it will likely have to move to Baker to handle him because Van Vleet is probably just too short to do it.
But that will be what I am watching: Cotton vs. Grant. Should be a great battle.
Big picture, how do you see this match-up playing out?
I don't see anyone getting a big lead in this one, and it should be pretty entertaining. I actually think the biggest advantage that Wichita State will have is there ability to compete on the glass and try and extend their own possessions. I am going to go with a low scoring affair, 64-60, Shockers.