When Paul Mills was an assistant men’s basketball coach at Baylor, the Bears faced a situation where they needed to win four games in four straight days at the 2009 Big 12 tournament in order to punch their ticket to March Madness.
In preparation, Mills called around in coaching circles to pick the brains of coaches who had pulled off the feat before. One point kept coming up in conversations.
“Have a zone,” Mills said, repeating what other coaches told him. “It’s hard to have your guys running around that difficult of matchups in man-to-man.”
Fast forward more than a decade later and Mills, now the head coach at Wichita State, still follows that advice for tournament settings.
The Shockers haven’t played a single possession of zone defense during their 3-0 start to the season, but that will likely change this week at the Myrtle Beach Invitational when the team plays three games in four days beginning with Thursday’s 3:30 p.m. opening-round game (broadcast on ESPNU) against Coastal Carolina at the HTC Center in Conway, S.C.
“The thing I worry about depth-wise is, ‘Do you necessarily have a defense that can keep somebody out of foul trouble?’” Mills said. “We haven’t shown a zone, but we’ve practiced it in anticipation of using it, whether it’s a case of they’re stretching us too far on ball screens and we need to keep somebody around the rim. It could be foul trouble. Or sometimes it’s a rest issue.
“Hopefully there’s a defense that may be able to save us from a legs perspective. Who knows how these games will play out. We’ll empty the tank on Game 1 and we’ll see what we have left in us for Game 2.”
While WSU was able to empty its bench in Sunday’s 30-point win over Friends, Mills leaned heavily on a seven-player rotation in the team’s first two games against Division I competition.
The starting lineup of Xavier Bell, Colby Rogers, Harlond Beverly, Kenny Pohto and Quincy Ballard, along with Dalen Ridgnal and Isaac Abidde off the bench, played 97% of minutes in wins over Lipscomb and Western Kentucky.
Rest and recovery will be critical this week for WSU, which is why Mills invited human performance coach John Underwood, who works with Olympic athletes and the U.S. Navy Seals, to speak about its importance to the players before the tournament. Mills also said WSU has hired a massage therapist to work with the team during its stay in South Carolina.
“Recovery is going to be a huge part of it,” Mills said. “We brought in somebody from New York and he’s coached north of 50 Olympic athletes who have won medals and brought him in to talk through the need of recovery and sleep and all of those things that factor into your performance. Our players have heard quite a bit about it and to their credit, they’re handling it pretty well.”
Although this week will be the team’s first regular-season games away from Koch Arena, WSU has had chances to establish a routine on the road during its exhibition tour in Greece and a scrimmage against Iowa played in Omaha last month.
“I’m anxious in regards to how people handle everything from their recovery to their sleep to their fueling habits to practices,” Mills said. “Sometimes in a different environment, people really respond differently. Some people are up for it and some people you can tell, ‘Man, I’m not sleeping in my bed.’ Very few teenagers are happy in the morning, but some you can tell, ‘Man, he’s a little groggier than normal.’ How often is that attributed to their bed versus being on the road. We’ll see.”
WSU will be the favorite on Thursday, despite playing on the home court of Coastal Carolina, a team transitioning 10 newcomers and currently ranked No. 246 nationally on KenPom. The Chanticleers are coached by Cliff Ellis, who has the fourth most wins among active Division I coaches, and have only played one game this season, an 88-86 win over Piedmont, a Division III opponent.
Regardless of Thursday’s result, WSU is guaranteed a high-caliber game against an NCAA tournament hopeful on Friday against either Liberty (KenPom No. 66) or Furman (No. 96).
Mills is more concerned about how WSU plays, rather than coming away with a set number of wins from the tournament.
“There is a way that we need to play and there’s just so many factors, whether it’s fatigue, depth, foul trouble, injuries,” Mills said. “You’re going to have to make adjustments during the course of it. I’m more worried about, ‘How do we go 1-0?’ Let’s get focused on today and let’s go 1-0.”
Wichita State at Coastal Carolina basketball preview
When: 3:30 p.m. Central, Thursday
Where: HTC Center (3,212), Conway, S.C.
Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM (Mike Kennedy and Bob Hull)
KenPom says: WSU 76, CCU 71
Series: First meeting
Projected starting lineups
Wichita State Shockers (3-0)
Coach: Paul Mills, first season, 3-0
Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (1-0)
Coach: Cliff Ellis, 17th season, 295-223