The Wichita State Shockers hit under 37.5 percent of their field goal attempts Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio — a rate slightly below three-eights of their tries.
The Shockers’ two best players — Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker — scored a modest 14 points apiece, combining to hit 3 of 11 three-point shots.
Wichita State did not earn more free throw attempts than the Vanderbilt Commodores did.
If you had told WSU head coach Gregg Marshall that this First Four bubble game would serve up those numbers, he probably would have winced.
Final score: Wichita State 70, Vanderbilt 50.
For all the things the Shockers failed to do at a high level for most of the night, they found themselves in the final seven minutes after watching a nine-point lead (47-38) get trimmed to three, at 51-48.
Vanderbilt never could find itself, and as a result, the brief euphoria over an anything-but-certain NCAA tournament berth lasted little more than 48 hours.
Wichita State moves on to play Arizona on Thursday in Providence, meaning that the Shockers will get another day to test themselves earn some praiseworthy ink from scribes. In the present moment, however, it is hard to shake the idea that this game’s bigger story was the extent to which the loser bottomed out.
Vanderbilt was supposed to be good enough to not merely make the Big Dance this season; the Commodores were supposed to be able to win at least one game, and very possibly make the second weekend of the tournament.
They didn’t even reach the first.
Tuesday represented all that was negative and deficient about a season which was granted a stay of execution on Selection Sunday, when an opening-game loss to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament was not held against Kevin Stallings and his team. Vanderbilt gained a reprieve in that moment, and even though Wichita State was formidable — you can play well and still lose — the Dores at least needed to demonstrate a considerable level of quality.
On a night when their opponent was rather pedestrian in most aspects of competition, the Commodores sank instead of rising with the wheat Shockers.
If Wichita State couldn’t quite hit 3 of every 8 field goals, Vanderbilt finished at just 30 percent. The Commodores depend on their three-point shooting, and they made just 3 of 19 triples.
Beyond the numbers, however, the most central feature of this ugly loss — so much like the Tennessee debacle and the season as a whole — is that once again, VU’s most talent-laden players couldn’t manifest their gifts in front of a national television audience.
Vanderbilt’s Damian Jones has epitomized his program’s struggle to reach its potential. Jones had more size and length than any Wichita State big man. This game marked the latest example of a matchup Jones should have owned… but failed to dominate in any way, shape or form. Exasperating to watch throughout his Vanderbilt career, Jones delivered an all-too-typically hesitant performance against Wichita State. He managed just 5 points; collected only 5 rebounds; and went 1-7 from the free throw line, 1-9 if you count two missed front ends of 1-and-1s.
Vanderbilt received several strong second-half minutes from guard Riley LaChance, but that’s part of the point: several minutes, hardly a whole game… and mostly as a solo performer.
Wichita State had at least one player who not only imposed himself on this game from start to finish, but in a manner which involved his teammates.
Whereas LaChance briefly helped Vanderbilt with a single three-pointer and some dribble pull-ups which created a few 12-foot makes, Fred VanVleet did a little bit of everything for the Shockers.
VanVleet’s floor vision enabled him to find the open man, and at times — like a great NFL quarterback — VanVleet threw a pass in such a way that his teammate became open in the course of going to the ball. VanVleet “threw his receiver open,” to use a football turn of phrase.
VanVleet’s shooting stroke — as has been the case in previous weeks — was not pure on Tuesday, but VanVleet can heavily influence the flow and outcome of a game without shooting or scoring. He created offense for teammates and opened the court, such that role players Conner Frankamp and Markis McDuffie were able to hit three triples (two by Frankamp, one by McDuffie) to turn that slim 51-48 lead into a 60-48 bulge with just over four minutes remaining.
VanVleet finished with 7 assists and only 1 turnover in an iron-man performance which held his team together. As a point of comparison, Vanderbilt guard Wade Baldwin — whose February resurgence (getting more minutes over LaChance) revived a flagging season and put VU in this game to begin with — finished with 5 assists and 4 turnovers. VanVleet’s +6 assist-turnover differential dwarfed Baldwin’s +1 mark. With Damian Jones failing to come to the aid of his backcourt mates, who simply couldn’t hit many threes, the Commodores were lost at sea.
The Shockers? They will find themselves near the shore, in the great state of Rhode Island on Thursday.
Wichita State is not a complete team; for long stretches of this First Four clash, only VanVleet and Ron Baker kept the Shockers afloat. However, when the seven-minute mark arrived in a three-point game, Wichita State’s role players supported their stars. The final seven minutes were the Shockers’ best of the whole game.
Vanderbilt offered the opposite reaction, going gently into that good night despite having a big man (Jones) who should have been able to destroy his opponent within five feet of the basket.
Wichita State — competent, but not special — didn’t need to soar on Tuesday in Dayton. The Shockers’ opponent couldn’t steady the ship.
A bunch of Commodores sank into the misery of a very early NCAA tournament exit.