SALT LAKE CITY – Sometimes the rhetoric doesn’t concur with the visual. Sometimes the coach-speak doesn’t necessarily ring true.
But nobody had to strain their credibility previewing Saturday night’s Gonzaga-Wichita State NCAA men’s basketball tournament encounter at EnergySolutions Arena.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few had referred to Wichita State’s hard-nosed style and rebounding prowess several times when he fielded a question late in his press conference about Shockers’ defensive specialist Tekele Cotton.
“I hate to be redundant but a tough, tough, guy,” Few said. “That’s kind of what Wichita State has, tough, aggressive, confident players.”
No. 1-ranked and top-seeded Gonzaga (32-2) likes to think of itself the same way. Mike Hart was sporting a few new knee bruises after Thursday’s rugged 64-58 victory over Southern. The Bulldogs rank among the nation’s best offensively, but they’ve been on a defensive roll of late and typically hold their own in bruising contests.
“It’s tournament time where everybody is physical,” senior forward Elias Harris said. “Wichita State is a great defensive team and a great, great rebounding team. They’ll send five to the boards if necessary and they play a nasty game.
“I feel like we’ve been doing the same thing. It’s going to be a competition: Who will be the tougher team?”
Good question. The team with the best answer will probably earn a trip to the Sweet 16 next week in Los Angeles.
No. 9 Wichita State (27-8) whipped No. 8 Pittsburgh 73-55 on Thursday with a familiar formula. The Shockers were the aggressors, defended from the opening tip and outrebounded Pitt, one of the nation’s better teams on the glass, 37-32.
The Shockers only made 39 percent of their shots, including a miserable 2 of 20 3-pointers, but still won going away.
“What Coach (Gregg Marshall) instills in our head is defense, rebounding and being tough,” junior forward Cleanthony Early said. “You’re not always going to be at your best, but if you have 10 guys thinking the same thoughts, the majority of the time you’re going to have enough guys produce on a given night.”
Early, a 6-foot-8 junior who was first-team All-Missouri Valley Conference despite coming off the bench for roughly half of the season, leads a balanced attack at 13.8 points and 5.2 rebounds. He scored 39 points against Southern Illinois in early January.
Early, battling an illness that required an IV on the day of the semifinals, struggled in the MVC tournament, but he bounced back with 21 points against Pitt.
“It felt good just to back at full health and bring energy and produce for my team,” Early said.
Wichita State’s barometer seems to be senior guard Malcolm Armstead. During a three-game losing streak midway through the MVC schedule, Armstead, who averages 10.7 points, was limited to five, seven and six points. In two other losses, he was held to six points or less.
“We have a system offensively and it usually starts and ends with our point guards,” said associate head coach Chris Jans, a former Idaho assistant. “We’ve had a number of good ones over the years. We’re at our best when Malcolm is playing his best.”
The Shockers will attempt to find that tricky balance, paying attention to Kelly Olynyk and Harris inside without getting burned by Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. from the outside.
“Olynyk is (Creighton’s) Doug McDermott with a couple of inches and more athleticism, minus the 50-something percent 3-ball,” Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said. “You have to pick your poison. You have to decide when you’re going to dig or try to double team the ball.”
Tough decision, fits the game’s prevailing theme.