No. 24 Wichita State brings strong defense into battle with ECU

NCAA Men's Basketball

After nearly two years, Wichita State has made its way back into the Top 25.

The Shockers (11-1) debuted at No. 24 in the Associated Press poll on Monday, and they will take their new-found ranking into their American Athletic Conference opener against visiting East Carolina on Wednesday.

They have arrived at this point with program staples — defense and rebounding. Opponents have experienced difficulty with the Shockers’ physical defense, making just 38.1 percent from the field and only 32.4 percent of their 3-point attempts.

And Wichita State has closed out most defensive possessions by securing a rebound, carving out a plus-7 advantage per game. In short, it’s been a team that’s lived up to the “play angry” mantra that coach Gregg Marshall made famous when the Shockers went on a stunning run to the Final Four in 2013.

The best part of this team for Marshall is that, in theory, it should only get better. There’s only one senior on the roster, center Jaime Echenique.

“If we don’t allow good to become the enemy of great, we can make a statement this year,” Marshall told reporters Sunday after his team’s 84-66 win over Abilene Christian. “We don’t have to wait for next year or the year after, because we’ve got 10 underclassmen. We can be good this year if we continue to work and allow ourselves to just dream. Dream it and make it happen.”

Making it happen Sunday was reserve forward Grant Sherfield, who came off the bench and collected a season-high-tying 15 points plus a season-best 11 rebounds in 25 minutes. Sherfield, who shot 6 of 6 from the field, is one of eight Wichita State players averaging at least 6.3 points per game.

Meanwhile, East Carolina (6-7) enters with a four-game winning streak after an 82-74 victory over Eastern Kentucky on Saturday. The Pirates got 25 points and a season-high 14 rebounds from sophomore Jayden Gardner while producing their longest winning streak since they had two four-game runs in 2013-14.

“We need to make this an expectation,” coach Joe Dooley said of the recent success. “That’s building things over the course of time, and not taking winning for granted, either. It’s not easy. But I do think a little bit of confidence with four in a row … you’re getting a little bit of a familiarity of things.”

Gardner is averaging 20.7 points and 9.2 rebounds per game, both team highs, and he is the first East Carolina player with five straight 20-point games since Maurice Kemp in the 2012-13 season. But the Pirates only have only one other player averaging in double figures — Tyrie Jackson at 10.8 points per game.

“We are really clicking as a team and coming together as one,” Jackson said. “Every day we’re trying to focus on getting better at everything and coming together, and I feel like the guys around have really recognized where we’re at in the season and how important it is to win, and how important it is to be locked in every day in practice.”

This will be the teams’ fifth meeting since Wichita State joined the AAC before the 2017-18 season. The Shockers have won the first four by an average of 21 points per game, including a 73-57 decision last year in the conference tournament at Memphis, Tenn.

–Field Level Media

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