Figuring Out Wichita State's Defensive Struggles This Year


Heading into the year Wichita State was a preseason top-10 team and one that many thought would be a favorite for the Final Four and possibly a national title. That’s what happens when you return the entire roster from a team who pushed Kentucky to the buzzer in the Round of 32 as an underseeded No. 7 seed. Fast forward 10 months and here we are with Wichita State barely hanging on as a top-25 team in the country and more importantly those around the sport trying to figure out what the hell is going on with them defensively.

Gregg Marshall is a defensive-minded coach. Wichita State has always been a defensive team. Take a look at his coaching profile – Wichita has been a top-30 defense on KenPom the last six years and a top-50 defense on KenPom the last seven, including having the best defensive efficiency in the 2015-16 season. This year they rank just 59th despite having pretty solid individual defenders on the team and returning everyone from last year’s 13th ranked defense. Here are the last two seasons on KenPom (this year is the top line)


I know most people would say right off the bat the move from the MVC to the AAC would be the cause for change here, but they’ve only played seven conference games. On top of that they’ve had Markis McDuffie back for those games. That’s arguably the start of the problem – the fact that Markis McDuffie missed the first 11 games of the season. To start, Marshall’s defensive scheme is known as the gap man defense or the 50 gap. The first principle of this defense is to jump to the ball and take away penetration without denial. Wichita wants to slow you down offensively, making you work the shot clock and trying to force turnovers with shot clock violations. The other main principle here is the help side defense doesn’t let you get in the paint. This is important for rotations as if a guy drives baseline opposite corner help comes all the way across the paint to take away the drive. If it’s a drive towards the free throw line opposite wing is diving down to cut it off. Finally the other thing Marshall preaches is to not let your guy cut in front of your face.

That said, it’s weird to see Wichita State rank as ‘poor’ per Synergy on possessions involving cuts. If that’s one of the main principles of the 50 Gap defense, how are you getting beat that way? This set play Houston ran on Saturday is a perfect example of what’s been going wrong with Wichita defensively this season – at least in my eyes. I’ll admit I went back and watched about 400 possessions of Wichita defensively to see if something stood out that really was the crux of this issue. It’s terrible rotations – quite an important part to the defense. Watch the play here:

It’s nothing complex, it’s just a defensive breakdown according to scheme. This time it’s on Rauno Nurger who is essentially hugging his guy in the post. As I mentioned earlier, the 50 Gap is based on help defense and being in passing lanes. Nurger is caught out of position with a simple brush screen. Wichita will be in the passing lanes on the wings and force people to cut backdoor with the knowledge that help is behind them. So that clears out one side while Gray cuts across the key. Here’s another defensive breakdown. McDuffie gets caught chasing and turning his back. Marshall stresses that you keep your ass to the baseline and McDuffie completely turns his body. That allows him to get caught in the screen while Nurger isn’t sliding to the correct spot. All in all it’s just simple things like that costing this team.

Next is the pick and roll. This is a set that college basketball teams are using more and more yet Wichita is still struggling to defend this. They grade out as average per Synergy, giving up .785 points per possession when the ball handler shoots. They are hardly forcing turnovers out of this set – just 12% of the time and giving up scores on 36.5% of all pick and roll possessions. Again, I want to focus on the Houston and SMU games – the two most recent losses where Wichita really got exposed defensively. Houston put Rob Gray in high ball screens time after time and he scored 11 points just out of this set alone. Wichita did a pretty poor job of fighting over screens when it came to Gray and having the hedge come up. Take a look at where the two defenders are in this set (hint: he made this)


Finally, there’s struggles guarding the 3-point line. Wichita has always given up a bunch of three point attempts – mostly due to its ability to make you work in the shot clock and have to force a shot. That’s still true this year as the Shockers rank 270th in 3PA/FGA. However, teams are shooting 33.5% from the 3-point line against them. It’s above average defense, ranking 100th in the country but its the second highest percentage Wichita is allowing since the 2009-10 season. Again, going back and watching teams are getting these looks two ways. One – they are swinging the ball side to side, getting a touch in the post and then kicking out and skipping. The second way are these high ball screens where Wichita is getting stuck sitting on the hedge.

It’s quite simple yet confusing when it comes down to Wichita State. There’s no reason it isn’t a good defensive team, but something has changed with their rotations from last year to this year. Teams are still doing the same stuff – trying to feed the post and attack Connor Frankamp. It’s this reason as to why Wichita is where it is right now in the season. Until Wichita can truly get back to being a top-30 defensive team in the country, it has no shot at a Final Four. Its offense is decent and Landry Shamet is a top-10 point guard in the country, but they are just getting torched on the defensive side of the ball.


There are some chances coming up for Wichita to get back to its defensive roots. The schedule breaks nicely for them with games against UCF, UConn, Memphis, Temple and Tulsa before playing Cincinnati twice. Not exactly a bunch of offensive firepower there. Keep an eye on their rotations and how they defend – most notably denying wings and keeping their ass to the baseline on cuts and down screens. If they can correct this, they’ll be a tough out in March. If not, they’ll be lucky to make the Sweet 16.