Arizona (#6) will begin what it hopes to be an extended NCAA Tournament run against Wichita State (#11) Thursday night (6:40 | TNT). Both teams enter the game with records of 25-8. That being said, records no longer matter. Nothing matters at this point in the season besides winning and advancing. Thursday night, Arizona goes up against one of the best defensive teams in the country in a matchup many pundits are already lauding for its upset potential.
Wichita St, coming off a 20 point victory over Vanderbilt Tuesday night, will go as far into March as senior guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet can take them. Each player has appeared in 11 NCAA tournament games, making them seasoned veterans in the month of March.
Both players have been perennial members of the Missouri Valley Conference all-conference team in recent years, both overall and defensively. With combined averages of 26 points, 8 rebounds, and 9 assists, Baker and VanVleet are the backbone of the Shockers team. Neither is afraid to pull up for a contested three, and both are eager to look for their own outside shot anytime the Shockers look like they have a bit of momentum.
Wichita State is a team that will go on runs throughout a game. The Shockers run an offense where all five players are constantly in motion, and for an excellent point guard like VanVleet, this gives him a lot of opportunities to drive and kick the ball back out to an open shooter. Ron Baker, much like Gabe York, will be constantly running around screens, looking for space to get his shot off. Allonzo Trier and Kadeem Allen will be working overtime tracking those two all over the court.
Defensively, the Shockers run an intense man-to-man scheme. Occasionally after made baskets, they will run a half court trap to try and force the opposing offense into an early shot clock turnover, or to try to disrupt their offensive rhythm. Their guards will focus on sticking to York like glue on the defensive end, bodying up against him and Trier whenever they get a chance.
For Trier, his ability to drive into the lane and draw fouls will be paramount Thursday. Arizona will run York around screens off the ball all game long, looking to get him open looks, or at least force the Shockers to switch who is guarding him and get him more favorable matchups.
What Wichita St abounds with in their defensive intensity, it lacks in size. They commonly run out lineups with only one or two forwards. Wichita St will rotate their undersized big men every few minutes, keeping them fresh and able to remain highly active. Anton Grady, the most athletic Shocker big man, is listed at 6’8. While he may provide a tough test for Ryan Anderson defensively with his athleticism and speed, the Arizona combo of Anderson, Zeus, Comanche, and Ristic should be able to dominate down low on the offensive side of the court.
Arizona is always motivated in March, having a head coach like Sean Miller ensures that. The players will have seen ESPN. They know that for whatever reason (be it an unjust seed for UA or their opponent), Arizona is being called out as an expected “giant” upset team. For a team full of seniors in their last March Madness, extra motivation isn’t needed. Now is the time for said seniors, with the help of a few key underclassmen, to leave their mark on the program.