Nearly six years have passed since Gregg Marshall and the Shockers climbed those ladders and cut down the nets at Staples Center in Los Angeles, a celebration of a 70-66 victory over Ohio State that secured Wichita State a spot in the 2013 Final Four.
To the rest of the country, the ninth-seeded Shockers were the ultimate Cinderalla team (and have since been voted “Best Cinderella”). WSU had lost its top five scorers from the previous season and been picked to finish fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference. Yet, the Shockers won 30 games, knocking off powerhouses Gonzaga and Ohio State in reaching the program’s first Final Four since 1965.
But to Wichita State, this was a team that fought and played angry all the way to reaching its potential. “I think Cinderella just found one glass slipper,” Marshall quipped at the time. “I don’t think she found four.”
In the fourth installment of Shocker Classics, the Eagle examined game film from the 2013 classic and delved into the exact reasons how Wichita State built a 20-point lead on Ohio State and how the Shockers punched their ticket to the Final Four in Atlanta.
Ohio State had been playing its best basketball of the season in the final month, riding an 11-game winning streak into its Elite Eight showdown against the Shockers. During that span, the Buckeyes had knocked off Michigan State (twice), Indiana (on the road) and Wisconsin to win the Big Ten tournament and then won in the NCAA Tournament on back-to-back buzzer-beaters against Iowa State and Arizona.
Deshaun Thomas was Ohio State’s most impactful player, as the 6-foot-7 forward averaged 19.8 points and 5.9 rebounds, while junior guard Aaron Craft was considered one of the nation’s top floor generals and a standout perimeter defender. Ohio State took good shots, rarely turned the ball over, rebounded well and played stingy defense. It was a winning formula that made the Buckeyes a 4.5-point favorite over WSU, while KenPom assigned Ohio State a 65% win probability.
Marshall and his top lieutenants, Chris Jans and Greg Heiar, devised another spectacular defensive game plan that successfully slowed an Ohio State offense that finished the season ranked No. 14 in KenPom’s Adjusted Efficiency metric. WSU wanted to turn Ohio State into a jump-shooting team and that’s exactly what the Shockers accomplished, especially in the first half when the Buckeyes shot 24% from the field, finishing 2 for 10 on two-point jumpers and 2 for 10 on three-pointers.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways WSU’s defense worked its magic. Not all of the clips below are from the first half, but they do show consistent themes the Shockers used to build their 20-point lead.
What you notice is the Shockers’ help defense was committed to walling off driving lanes to persuade the driver to kick out to the perimeter rather than continue on for a shot at the rim. This can be risky because it often leaves shooters open from the outside, but WSU could pull it off with great perimeter defenders like Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton and with Cleanthony Early’s length. You’ll see Early and Baker both help to cut off a drive in the video above, then recover well enough to contest the long jumper. Ohio State rarely sent numbers chasing the offensive rebound and with Marshall’s mastery of teaching box-out fundamentals to his players, WSU was able to lock down the defensive glass throughout the game.
Another wrinkle WSU had was for Malcolm Armstead to sag off Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft, who was a reluctant shooter. Armstead was quick with his hands and possessed great instincts, so playing so far off clogged the driving lanes even further for Ohio State. It also forced Craft into firing up a career-high seven three-pointers, which he only made two of. In total, Craft scored six points on 10 jump shots and finished the game 2 of 12 from the field.
Just as important was Early’s defense on Thomas, Ohio State’s leading scorer who scored a game-high 21 points but had to manufacture that from 21 field-goal attempts and nine free throws. There’s no question Early, with his athleticism and length at 6-7 and his Bronx toughness, got the better of Thomas in this game. Per Synergy, Thomas was 1 of 9 from the field with Early as his primary defender.
Early did not back down from Thomas in the post and used his strength to wall Thomas off and prevent him from bulldozing over him to the rim. Ohio State also loved to get Thomas, a 34% three-point shooter, going from the perimeter on simple pick-and-pop plays. The way WSU typically defended these plays — with the big hedging — could have led to disaster.
But Early deserves a lot of credit for fulfilling his responsibility on the ball screen to discourage the ball handler from driving and then to use his quickness and length to recover to Thomas and challenge the shot at the release. Yes, Thomas (0 for 6 from three) missed one or two he usually made that season. But Early’s defense is a reason why some of those missed. In total, per Synergy, Ohio State shot 3 of 16 when Early was the primary defender.
And the final ingredient to why WSU held Ohio State to 31 points on its first 45 possessions (0.69 PPP) en route to a 51-31 lead in the second half was the best shot-blocking game of Carl Hall’s career. The senior finished with a career-best six blocks and was a big reason why Ohio State, a team that made 61% of its shots at the rim, made just 10 of 19 attempts at the rim against the Shockers. As you can see in the video above, Hall was everywhere for WSU as its last line of defense.
Now to the actual flow of the game. WSU and Ohio State slugged it out on the defensive end for the game’s first 13 minutes with WSU holding a slight edge, 19-15. That’s when senior sub Demetric Williams, who only played seven (impactful) minutes, flipped the game. It started with him simply pushing the tempo to attack Ohio State’s defense before it was set, which led to a baseline penetration and a kick-out with Williams hitting Cotton for a wide-open corner three that was pure. The next time down, Ohio State loses (or ignores?) Williamson the left wing and he cashes in with a rainbow three for a 6-0 surge in 30 seconds to give WSU its first double-digit lead, 25-15, with 6:27 remaining in the first half.
WSU led 35-22 at halftime, not because it was shooting the lights out; rather because it was defending so well. At one stretch in the first half, Ohio State was held without points on 12 of 14 possessions. And then the Shockers created their 20-point cushion thanks to a deadly stretch that saw them score 21 points in eight possessions at the start of the second half to establish a 56-36 lead with 11:02 remaining.
A crazy stat: WSU won the game without Baker, who had been the breakout star of the tournament, making a field goal. He did make all nine of his free throws, including some clutch ones, but just because Baker went 0 for 3 from the field doesn’t mean he didn’t help the Shockers advance. In fact, Baker’s overall performance is a reminder that making shots isn’t the only way to help your team win. Baker did so many little details in this game — from his one-pass-away defense to rotating to boxing out to making the extra pass — that coaches love, but doesn’t show up in the box score. Here are two that stood out the most:
The first play shows Baker back-pedaling on defense with Ohio State’s Shannon Scott barreling toward him in a fast-break situation. It’s the exact situation where the defense is at the biggest disadvantage and Baker even stumbles a little when Scott makes his move to the basket. But somehow Baker swivels his hips to recover fast enough to swat Scott’s shot away and save a basket for the Shockers.
The second play shows Baker making the extra pass to upgrade a good shot to a great one. He’s wide open up top after a “roll and replace” set from WSU, but VanVleet’s pass is a little wayward. Still, Baker could have taken the shot for a good look. But he sees Ohio State’s help defense rotate off Armstead on the wing toward him and Baker whips it to Armstead, who swishes the open three-point look.
WSU enjoyed a lot of success because Marshall down-sized against Ohio State. Back-up bigs like Ehimen Orukpe, Chadrack Lufile and Jake White were cut out of the rotation, which was essentially the starting five plus VanVleet. But that success depended so much on Early’s versatility on defense and when he sprained his ankle and exited the game with 11 minutes left and WSU up 20, the game drastically shifted.
Early only missed a little more than three minutes of game action, but Ohio State reeled off a 9-0 run during that span. And as crunch time descended upon the Shockers, they began making uncharacteristic turnovers. WSU had committed just seven turnovers in its first 55 possessions, but it turned the ball over five times in seven possessions during a 3-minute span.
Meanwhile, WSU couldn’t keep Ohio State off the free-throw line. The Buckeyes made 19 of 22 free throws in the second half, the last pair cutting WSU’s 20-point lead to 62-59 with 2:48 remaining. It had all of the makings of a meltdown and total collapse by the Shockers.
With WSU reeling and Ohio State within a possession for the first time since the 8:44 mark in the first half, it was Tekele Cotton who delivered for the Shockers. With WSU desperately needing points, Cotton made Ohio State pay for helping off and swished a three to stop the 23-6 run and restore WSU’s lead to 65-59 with 2:20 remaining.
The pressure was reapplied after Ohio State scored to trim the lead to 65-61 with the clock now under two minutes. WSU ran clock and settled for a contested VanVleet three-pointer at the end of the shot clock that missed. Remember the video above that showed WSU executing text-book box-outs for defensive rebounds? Those little details matter, as shown in the second clip because Ohio State doesn’t box out Cotton in the left corner and he uses his free roam to explode off the ground and tip the offensive rebound to himself to extend the possession.
Not only did that allow WSU to run off another 30 seconds off the clock, but it also gave VanVleet another chance. This was during his freshman season, so teams didn’t know it at the time, but VanVleet is a big-shot-maker and the 2013 NCAA Tournament is where he began to show those chops.
With the shot clock dwindling again, this time VanVleet takes a screen by Baker on the left wing and takes a hard dribble toward the baseline. A behind-the-back dribble gives VanVleet the lane he needed to attack the basket and the 19-year-old freshman bumps into the defender, absorbs the contact, fades away and lofts a shot just over the out-stretched hands of a 6-7 defender. The shot bounces off the rim three times before falling through to give WSU a 67-61 lead with 59 seconds left, essentially sealing the victory.
Some have called the win over Ohio State the most important in program history. It returned WSU to the Final Four for the first time in over a half-century. It gave WSU more national attention than it had ever enjoyed before, making the Shockers and Marshall into national brands. It was the coming-out party for VanVleet and Baker, who went on to become All-Americans and NBA players. And it could also be argued that this win propelled WSU onto a trajectory that eventually led to it leaving the Missouri Valley Conference in favor of the American Athletic Conference.
It was truly a Shocker Classic.