Does Wichita State have a defensive problem?
The question may seem silly, considering the No. 8 Shockers navigated a challenging non-conference schedule with a 10-2 record, including four victories over top-100 teams and their best non-conference road victory (at Baylor) since 2012.
But it’s also true WSU allowed seven 25-point scorers in 12 games, gave up 50 or more points by halftime in three straight games, and allowed overmatched mid-majors like Arkansas State and Florida Gulf Coast to hang around until the final minute.
So can WSU get back to the top-notch defense it’s had under coach Greg Marshall? Well, it’s complicated.
“I think that kind of defense is still here, but it’s just a matter of teams having their best shooting nights against us and us getting back to what we were doing last year,” WSU sophomore Landry Shamet said. “We have a huge target on our backs, so they’re playing their best basketball.”
The points per possession quandary
Fans who suspect WSU’s defense has fallen off this season are correct in a strict points allowed sense.
According to KenPom.com, a website that tracks advanced college basketball statistics, WSU has slipped. After stringing together four straight seasons of top-10 finishes nationally in points per possession allowed (ranging from 0.86 to 0.90), WSU’s defense has allowed 0.95 PPP and ranks 71st — its worst mark since the 2008-09 season when WSU finished 17-17.
But it’s important to add context to these numbers. Allowing 0.95 PPP against an easy schedule is much different than allowing 0.95 PPP against a tough schedule.
While WSU’s defense is allowing more points per possession, it’s also playing tougher competition. According to KenPom’s metrics, WSU’s defense has faced the 46th-toughest slate of offenses so far (and second-toughest in the Marshall Era).
Of the teams with schedules rated more difficult than WSU’s, only North Carolina and Tennessee post better efficiency numbers.
“We’ve been playing great teams with great players, so that’s what great teams and great players do — they’re supposed to make tough shots,” WSU senior Rashard Kelly said. “We haven’t been playing the same caliber of teams we have in the past. Everyone is motivated against us.”
This is why KenPom’s Adjusted Efficiency metric is a more reliable number to go by. While the metric still gives WSU some goodwill after being the second-best defense in the country last season, the Shockers rank 26th this season.
WSU has finished in the top-20 of KenPom’s defensive ratings for five straight seasons and despite a perceived slow start, it’s not far away from making it six straight.
A fluky cause
When researching why WSU’s points per possession allowed is higher this season, I took to Synergy to try to find the answer by comparing last season’s numbers to this season.
While it doesn’t explain all of WSU’s defensive problems, a portion can be chalked up to opponents hitting tougher shots at a much higher rate this season. The two most difficult shots to convert — shots with less than four seconds on the shot clock and isolation shots — are where the biggest differences are from last season to this season.
WSU’s defense faced more than 2,800 possessions last season — 12 percent of which were isolation and end-of-shot-clock shots. Last season, teams scored 196 points on those possessions, while this season teams are on pace to score 293 points.
“A win against Wichita State, everyone wants that so they’re going to put on their highlight performance and try to give us their best fight,” Kelly said.
Will teams continue to hit these kind of shots against WSU?
Based on recent seasons, the answer is no. So if those type of shots start rimming out more as the season progresses and the numbers fall back into line with where WSU has traditionally held opponents, then WSU’s defensive PPP would come down a couple ticks on that alone.
A not-so-fluky cause
Another cause for the increase rests solely on the players for failed execution and on the coaches for lack of in-game adjustments.
It seems like WSU has allowed an alarming amount of wide-open three-pointers. But after comparing to last year’s team, WSU is giving up the same amount: about five per game. The difference is, this season opponents are actually making the Shockers pay for their mistakes.
Per Synergy, take a look at the shot charts from this season compared to last season on uncontested shots allowed by WSU’s defense.
Opponents are making 43 percent of their uncontested three-pointers and scoring at 1.21 PPP compared to last season making 33 percent and scoring at 0.94 PPP.
How are they getting open? WSU has had problems this season defending the pick-and-roll when the opponent has a big man who can either pop out to the three-point line after the screen or rotate up for a throw-back.
But the problems aren’t just with the pick-and-roll. WSU is having problems containing dribble penetration, as opponents are making it to the lane and forcing WSU’s help defense to collapse, leaving spot-up shooters open on the outside. Sometimes WSU’s defense over-helps and needlessly comes off a shooter, but the majority of the problem exists with the guards failing to stop penetration.
“A big part of it is ball pressure and a lot of it starts with me as the point guard out front guarding the ball,” Shamet said. “I know me personally, I couldn’t pressure as much as I wanted to early on (due to a foot injury) and I want to get back to where I was at Baylor and at Oklahoma State. If I can do that consistently, then that will help all of us out and I’m taking that upon myself to do my part and hopefully that will help get everyone else going.”
There are instances where WSU’s defense has failed in communication and loses a shooter for an open three-pointer, but the on-ball pressure is an area I think WSU can help itself the most. If the Shockers can start limiting opponents from penetrating in the lane, then their defense will be much closer to what it was last season.
A three-point problem
Marshall has said on his radio show throughout this season that it seems like opponents have consistently shot the lights out against Wichita State from beyond the arc.
While that may seem like the case, the numbers don’t back it up. Opponents are shooting 33 percent on three-pointers against WSU, which is actually a top-third defense. There have been five teams shoot better than their season average from three against WSU, the most extreme being Cal, a 35-percent shooting team, making 53 percent in Maui. But the Shockers have actually held seven of their 12 opponents under their season average.
The stat that stands out the most to be isn’t the three-point shooting percentage against WSU’s defense, it’s the sheer number of three-pointers it’s allowing.
Through 12 games, 44 percent of opponents’ shots have been three-pointers — the 28th-highest rate in the country. That number has never been higher than 38.7 percent in the Marshall Era.
Some of that is a result of the schedule, which includes seven teams that rank in the top-100 nationally in three-point rate — and Savannah State’s 55 bombs certainly skew the numbers some. But the trend this season has been opponents taking more three-pointers than usual against WSU’s defense.
Is that because WSU is protecting the rim at all costs and forcing teams outside or is it because three-pointers are that easy to find against WSU’s defense? Right now it appears to be a mixture. But the fact is that seven of 12 teams have shot more three-pointers than their season average against WSU.
“We’ve got to dictate more on defense and not play on our heels because then we can’t be aggressive,” Kelly said. “Our defense is suppose to be aggressive. We want to dictate what the offense does, not let the offense dictate how we guard them. We’ve got to start being more handsy and create more havoc and cause more turnovers and disturb their pace and disturb what they want to do.”
WSU’s defense hasn’t been disturbing much of anything this season, as it has the 47th-worst turnover rate and the 15th-worst steal rate in the country. The return of Markis McDuffie is likely to help.
Even though WSU’s three-point percentage defense is still above-average, it can still help itself out by running opponents off the three-point line more often. Allowing teams to chuck up so many three-pointers adds more variance to the game, which opens the door for a hot-shooting team to capitalize more than typical.
This is an area that should improve during conference play, as there isn’t a trigger-happy team in the AAC.
There are several areas where Wichita State can improve its defense. While McDuffie’s return will help solve some problems, it will take better effort and execution from the players if they desire to be a top-10 defense.
I suspect opponents won’t shoot as well on those desperation attempts, and Marshall will likely make the necessary adjustments to WSU’s pick-and-roll defense the second half of the season to tighten things up. And it’s important to remember WSU is going to be playing its toughest schedule in years, so some regression is to be expected.
But talking to the players over break, they seem motivated to return WSU to its defensive roots beginning Saturday at Connecticut.
“We still like to lock people up,” Kelly said. “We like holding teams possession after possession after possession with no baskets. That feels better than anything else. Better than scoring on the other end or making threes. We’ve just got to get back to who we are.”