Preview: No. 7 Wichita St. vs. No. 3 ND

CLEVELAND – Notre Dame is the better three-point and free-throw shooting team, and hold a huge advantage in two-point shooting percentage. But Wichita State excels in forcing turnovers, and the Shockers are a program accustomed to winning.

CLEVELAND – For the first time in 12 seasons and the 16th in its history, Notre Dame (31-5) is among the final 16 teams in the country while Wichita State – the surprise Final Four participant in 2013 – is making its second trip to the Sweet 16 in three years while compiling a sparkling 65-5 record mark the past two seasons.

• Game 37: No. 7 Wichita State (30-4) vs. No. 3 Notre Dame (31-5)
• Place: Quicken Loans Arena; Cleveland, Ohio
• Time: 7:15 p.m. ET
• Conference: Missouri Valley
• Location: Wichita, Kansas
• Nickname: Shockers
• 2013-14 record: 35-1 (18-0 in MVC)

Gregg Marshall, 52, is in his 16th year as a head coach – eight at Winthrop and eight at Wichita State. He’s compiled an impressive 398-158 overall record: 194-83 at Winthrop and 204-75 at Wichita State.

Marshall’s path crossed Notre Dame’s and Mike Brey’s in Spokane, Wash., in 2007 when Marshall’s Winthrop squad, the No. 11 seed, defeated the Irish, the No. 6 seed, 74-64, in the West Region of the NCAA tournament.

Marshall took Winthrop to seven NCAA tournaments in eight seasons, although the victory over the Irish was his only one in the Big Dance while coaching the Eagles. He’s now taken Wichita State to four straight NCAA tournaments. The Shockers defeated No. 1 seed Gonzaga and No. 2 seed Ohio State to get to the Final Four in 2013, where the Shockers lost to eventual national champion Louisville.

Under Marshall, the Shockers are 122-20 over the last four seasons, including 65-5 the last two years.

Notre Dame has nothing on its resume that comes close to Wichita State’s four wins and run to the Final Four two seasons ago, although the Irish have made up ground this year. While the Shockers lost to Illinois State in the semifinals of this year’s Missouri Valley Conference tournament, the Irish swept through Miami, Duke and North Carolina to claim the ACC championship.

Notre Dame has been wearing “Fr. Ted” patches on its jerseys since legendary University president/civil rights leader Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C. passed away at the end of February. Now, it’s even more personal for the Irish following the death of head coach Mike Brey’s mother, Betty, last Saturday, just hours before the Irish defeated Butler to advance to the Sweet 16.

On the flip side, Wichita State invested a lot emotionally when the Shockers defeated in-state Kansas, which has been dodging them for 22 seasons. Can Wichita State put that emotional high behind them four days later?

In addition, Alabama has expressed an interest in pursuing Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall as its head coach. Marshall says it has had no impact on him, his staff or his players, but it’s virtually impossible for that to be completely true.

“Toughness. I thought they were a mentally and physically tough group (in ’07 when Gregg Marshall was at Winthrop). Good in their half-court man defense, which they are now.

“He’s a bright coach. I’ve known him a long time, since he was an assistant. I’ve been thoroughly impressed with what he’s built at Winthrop and certainly the run they’re on at Wichita. We certainly respect the heck out of them. They’ve been machine-like in March.

“They’re ball screening a lot now, and early ball screens in transition. When you have really good guards like they do, it’s a bear to guard that over and over again. (Point guard Fred) VanVleet is so dangerous where he drags it and makes a play and waits for an angle. He’s so good and so poised and doesn’t play too fast. A veteran guy who’s won a lot, and it shows when he plays.”

“I do (think we’re the underdog). There’s so much out there about the Kentucky-Wichita State rematch and our guys have seen that, and certainly (Wichita State’s) NCAA tournament success with this nucleus…we’ve not had that.

“We do feel a little bit like the odd-man-out because we keep hearing about them getting a shot at Kentucky and ending their undefeated season. But we did win an ACC tournament going through North Carolina and Duke on Tobacco Road, and I think that gives us confidence to play against them.”

“I coached against Coach Brey in 2007 and loved his team then, but I think this is a better team. They had two first-team all-conference guys (Colin Falls and Russell Carter), plus a young post player by the name of (Luke) Harangody that turned out to be pretty good.

“This group, they’ve got five guys on the floor that can all score the basketball. Most of them can drive it. They’re tough. I love their tenacity. They create turnovers, steal the ball in the passing lanes…(Brey) has done a great job. To go into the ACC and win that tournament in the second year by beating North Carolina and Duke in Greensboro is a very difficult task. Not too many teams can do that.”

Ron Baker, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior, leads the Shockers in scoring at 14.9 points per game, and yet he hasn’t scored 20 points since prior to the start of Missouri Valley Conference play. He is an efficient, consistent, steady performer who also rebounds at a 4.4 pace and has turned the basketball over just 39 times in 34 games, despite handling the basketball on a regular basis.

Baker is far and away the Shockers’ top three-point threat, converting 38.4 percent (78-of-203). He averaged 8.7 points per game as a red-shirt freshman during Wichita State’s Final Four run two seasons ago.

If Baker isn’t the catalyst of most good things that happen with Wichita State, then it’s 6-foot-0, 195-pound junior Fred VanVleet, a mature, heady player who sets the tone with ball pressure and dribble penetration, not unlike Notre Dame’s point guard counterpart – Demetrius Jackson. VanVleet averages 13.2 points per game while distributing assists at a 5.3 rate per game.

VanVleet has just 59 turnovers – less than two per game – despite serving as the Shockers’ primary ball-handler. He is Wichita State’s best and most frequent free-throw shooter (79.7 percent, 126-of-158). He scored 27 points against Indiana in the second round of the NCAA tournament, and then tossed in 17 points with six assists and four steals (as well as a surprising five turnovers) in Sunday’s victory over Kansas.

Wichita State’s top rebounder (5.3 per game) and No. 3 scorer (11.1) is 6-foot-7, 245-pound senior Darius Carter, who logs the least amount of time among starters (21.2 minutes per game) while sharing big-man duties with freshmen Shaquille Morris (6-foot-7, 260) and Rashard Kelly (6-foot-7, 232). Carter shoots 51.9 percent from the field while Morris connects at a 54.1 percent rate.

Most of Wichita State’s scoring – 70 percent – comes from Baker, VanVleet, Carter and 6-foot-3, 205-pound senior Tekele Cotton, who averages 9.9 points per game. Cotton is at his best closer to the basket as opposed to three-point range, where he shoots more often (111 attempts) than his percentage (29.7) warrants.

The fifth starter is 6-foot-4, 218-pound junior Even Wessel, who has scored in double figures just five times, although one of those came against Kansas Sunday when he tossed in 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting from three-point range.

The eighth man in the rotation is 6-foot-6, 213-pound Zach Brown, who logs just under 11 minutes per game.

On paper, this might be the biggest toss-up among the eight Sweet 16 games Thursday-Friday. The pointspread opened with Notre Dame as a one-point favorite, which has since shifted to Wichita State favored by a point-and-a-half. It’s that close.

Both teams maximize their chemistry/efficiency on the offensive end of the court, and both have used defense to reach this stage of the NCAA tournament. For Notre Dame, that’s something new. The Irish literally won their three ACC tournament games and both NCAA tournament games by playing outstanding defense down the stretch. For Wichita State, it’s more a part of their/Gregg Marshall’s DNA.

You’re not going to find two grittier, tough teams on the court together in the Sweet 16 than Notre Dame and Wichita State. It’s how they excel, which makes tonight’s clash one to witness. Thus, it may not be pretty, and points could be at a premium during stretches of this game.

For the Irish, they’ll have to continue to defend at a high level, but if they can slow/shutdown Duke and North Carolina, they can hold their own against the Shockers. Look for Steve Vasturia to get the Ron Baker assignment while the Demetrius Jackson vs. Fred VanVleet head-to-head confrontation will go a long way toward determining the outcome of this game.

Where Notre Dame needs to gain an advantage is with Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton and Zach Auguste, who have more scoring firepower than the rest of the lineup Wichita State puts on the court, not to mention what Vasturia is capable of doing offensively. Connaughton scored 20 points in the ACC championship game against North Carolina, most of which came down the stretch. The Irish need him to have a good shooting game from three-point range – i.e. 4-of-5 vs. North Carolina -- as opposed to the 2-of-9 in the two NCAA tournament games. (Note: Opponents shoot less than 30 percent from three-point range against Wichita State.)

A first-team all-ACC type scoring performance from Grant also would help, and Auguste needs to continue the hot hand he’s displayed in the last six games in which he’s averaged 14.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.

The difference in the game also could fall on the shoulders of freshman Bonzie Colson, who has scored just six points with four rebounds in the last three games after sparking Notre Dame in the first half against Duke in the ACC semifinals. A couple of three-pointers by V.J. Beachem could prove to be the difference as well.

The margin for error is this game for both teams is slim. On the season, the Irish are a better free-throw shooting team than the Shockers by about four percent. One of the greatest disparities comes in two-point field-goal shooting. The Irish convert 58.2 percent while the Shockers are at just 49.1.

Wichita State is better at forcing turnovers than the Irish, but all things being equal, Notre Dame is a better three-point shooting team, although the Shockers made 10-of-20 against Kansas after converting just 2-of-13 versus Indiana.

Mike Brey likely looked at those two- and three-point percentages and concluded that if the Irish can prevent the Shockers from lighting it up from distance, he’ll take his chances on two-point field goals, particularly if the Irish can take advantage of the statistical disparity.

Wichita State excels at creating turnovers. The Shockers have turned their opponents over 453 times, which isn’t West Virginia-like, but still a notable number (13.3 per game) against an Irish team that is an Irish strength (9.0 per game). Wichita State tends to protect the basketball along the same lines as Notre Dame.

Looming large is Wichita State’s 65-5 record over the last two seasons and 122-20 mark over the last four. Simply put, the Shockers rarely lose, which makes it difficult to pick against Gregg Marshall.

But there’s some magic with this Notre Dame team, magic that could very well carry the Irish to a match-up with mighty Kentucky Saturday, which would scrap the storyline of a Kentucky-Wichita State rematch.

• Pointspread: Wichita State by 1 ½
• Irish Illustrated Prediction: Notre Dame 65, Wichita State 63
• Season record: 24-12 straight up; 14-14 vs. points Top Stories