Last year, 14 seed Wichita State trucked out to Pennsylvania and gave quite a scare to 3 seed Penn State before succumbing by 6 points. They returned all but one player, and promptly built on last year's excellent season with an even better year. A team that has gone 23-1 over their last 24 games is inherently scary.
Former Tennessee point guard Jody Adams is the woman in charge, and her seven year tenure has seen a slow but consistent rise towards the top of the Missouri Valley, traditionally one of the stronger mid-major conferences in the NCAA.
WSU is a weird team to try to figure out. They have a bunch of players with unusual skillsets, and they have played a very light schedule. Still, a neutral site 15 point win over Ohio State and a near upset on the road over Tennessee is enough to grab your attention.
What do you need to know about the Shockers? Plenty!
G Jamillah Bonner, 5'8'' Sr.
G/F Michaela Dapprich, 5'10'' Jr.
G/F Alex Harden, 5'11'' Sr.
F Alie Decker, 5'10'' So.
F Kelsey Jacobs, 6'2'' Sr.
G Jaleesa Chapel, 5'9'' So.
Hey, look, another Cal! Wichita St. does not use their bench in big games or close games. For example, against Tennessee, six players got minutes, and a seven player had one minute of action.
Heck, Chapel really doesn't play all that much, and when she is on the court she's hardly a player that will be expected to make much happen. Based on her numbers, I think she's just in so that WSU can buy a minute or two of rest for their five starters.
The starting five is a weird conglomeration. The positions listed above match what is listed on the WSU official site, but they don't mean a ton. Bonner is nominally the point guard, but the ball will typically be in Harden's hands. Decker is listed as a true post player, but she doesn't pull down many boards and spends offensive possessions looking to gun from 3 point range.
The reality is that WSU essentially plays four guards who are relatively interchangeable in terms of a core skill-set. This is a very strong passing team as a result, even if they don't have one player with the individual passing brilliance of a Brittany Boyd (but then, how many teams do?). Everybody chips in with rebounding, and everybody REALLY chips in on defense - all five starters average at least one steal/game.
Our Computer Overlords Predict
Sagarin Predictor: Cal by 8
Wichita State's record and stats are gaudy, and I think it's understandable for Cal fans to perhaps feel wary about this game. It's certainly true that the Bears can't waltz into this game and walk away with an easy win.
But the 2nd best team in the MVC is only a tad better than a team like Oregon. Can you imagine how good Cal would look if they hadn't played a team better than Oregon since December? Just as importantly, the Bears are at home, which accounts for a significant portion of the computer's bullishness.
The Shockers are good - probably the best 13 seed in the tournament, and maybe even better than a 12 seed or two. But Cal isn't a 4 seed for nothing.
Keys to the Game
Does anybody get into foul trouble? Both of these teams are basically planning on playing a six player rotation. If either side has to dip meaningfully into the bench, they will likely be at a disadvantage. Wichita State plays slowly, so it's possible that there won't be enough possessions for players to accumulate many fouls. On the other hand, both of these teams like to force turnovers on defense, so it wouldn't surprise me if there's lots of defensive chippiness. How the refs call the game will be more critical than usual.
I would assume that Reshanda will be guarding Kelsey Jacobs most of the time, and it's worth noting that Jacobs is not adept at drawing fouls and getting to the line. The bigger question will be whether or not Cal can prevent dribble penetration and if Gray needs to have an active role as a help defender.
Who guards Harden? Does Boyd get the assignment? Harden does have a size advantage on Boyd, and they don't play exactly analogous roles, so it wouldn't necessarily follow that Boyd will be on her. Plus Harden draws her fair share of fouls, and Cal needs Boyd on the court.
On the other hand, Boyd is Cal's best on-ball defender, and Cal would love to let her try to take WSU's best player out of her rhythm. Watch as Cal plays various zones and it ends up being a moot point.
Can anybody guard Gray? Too often in these previews I focus on what Cal needs to do to stop the other team, and not what the other team needs to do to stop Cal. Kelsey Jacobs is a 6'2'' senior who will almost certainly draw the assignment of defending Gray whenever she is on the court. Jacobs has decent size, but neither does she have first-round-of-the-draft size or strength.
And WSU isn't exactly teeming with players that make sense for double teams on Gray either. It's pretty hard to play pressure defense and also double team in the post. Perhaps just as importantly, WSU doesn't have the bodies to play hack-a-Gray - they just can't afford to be as physical as most Pac-12 teams were.
There's a decent chance that Reshanda is set up for one of those monster games where nobody can really stop her.
The turnover battle: Cal is a team that tries decently hard to force turnovers, but as I noted in yesterday's Berkeley pod round-up, it's a way of life for the Shockers. WSU is likely to win the turnover battle. The question is: by how much? If Cal can either use their own pressure defense to force a bunch of turnovers (and make a really ugly game!) OR exercise better ball control, then they can at least partially neutralize what WSU wants to be their big advantage.
Which team can get to the basket, and which team can hit some 3s?: There are lots of stylistic similarities between these two teams - good defense with lots of turnovers, iffy rebounding . . . and inconsistent shooting from outside the arc. Less than 25% of Cal's shot attempts are 3 pointers, while 25.6% of WSU's attempts are from behind the arc. Both teams want to get the ball into the paint, even if they use different means to get it there.
You would think that Cal's size and length would give them the advantage both in terms of attacking inside and in terms of preventing WSU from getting what they want on defense. But the Shockers are a veteran, sound bunch of players. I'm not counting any chickens yet.
And obviously, if either team does get hot from outside, or at least chips in 2 or 3 more three pointers than anticipated, it will go a long way.