Paul Mills made his public debut in the Roundhouse on Sunday afternoon, as the Wichita State men’s basketball team worked through some kinks to eventually pull away for a 74-53 win over Rogers State in an exhibition game.
Here are three takeaways from the first public appearance by the Shockers in the 2023-24 season. They are set to officially open the season against Lipscomb at Koch Arena on Monday, Nov. 6.
1. An intriguing debut for the two-center lineup
WSU won’t always be able to count on the advantages it had on Sunday against a middle-of-the-pack Division-II team from Oklahoma.
But there was plenty to be encouraged about in how Mills’ experiment playing 6-foot-10 Kenny Pohto and 6-foot-11 Quincy Ballard together.
Both players registered double-doubles, as Pohto collected 12 points and 11 rebounds and Ballard added a team-high 14 points and 10 rebounds, and the pairing was plus-21 in their 21 minutes together on the floor.
“I thought they were really good together,” WSU guard Colby Rogers said. “I thought they dominated the boards. Their paint presence altered shots, and that allowed us to run in transition because we held them to one (shot) and got the rebound.”
Ballard’s extended run was somewhat of a surprise, given he has averaged just 5.4 minutes in his 46 career appearances. The 23 minutes he played on Sunday were more than he’s ever played in a Division-I game, and the former Syracuse transfer showed his potential at both ends.
On defense, Ballard made his presence felt with three blocked shots and several more altered at the rim. He used his height to suck up rebounds high up in the air, and he scored many of his baskets simply because he was bigger than the opposition.
Mills pointed out that the Ballard-Pohto pairing was also effective in the closed scrimmage against Iowa, finishing plus-eight in their minutes together.
“I think we can be competitive,” Mills said. “We have to make sure we stay free from the injury bug because those guys are going to end up playing quite a bit.”
UTSA graduate transfer Jacob Germany, a 6-foot-10 center with 1,291 career points and 84 starts to his name, played the majority of his minutes as the sole big man on the floor in a reserve role. He finished with five points and five rebounds in 13 minutes off the bench.
WSU doubed up Rogers State in total rebounds, 54-27 and grabbed 18 offensive rebounds that resulted in a 24-6 advantage in second-chance points.
The Shockers had great success with their starting lineup, which included a trio of guards in Xavier Bell, Colby Rogers and Harlond Beverly matched with the two bigs in Pohto and Ballard. All five starters played at 25 minutes and were at least plus-18 in those minutes on the floor.
“It was good playing with this group of guys,” Bell said. “Coach puts us in different situations every day in practice, so it’s not really anything knew. Probably just the (playing in front of) fans part. We just went out there and executed our stuff. Everybody knows what they have to do job-wise, so having a group of guys that buys into that is nothing but cool.”
2. Turnovers plague Shocker offense
WSU is optimistic better ball-handling days are ahead, as the players said their 17 turnovers in Sunday’s exhibition was mostly shaking off the preseason rust.
But considering the competition level, it’s a little troubling the Shockers turned the ball over on 25% of their 68 possessions, a mark that would have ranked dead-last in Division I last season.
That’s quite the change for Mills, whose final four teams at Oral Roberts ranked 16th or better nationally in limiting turnovers with last season’s team ranking No. 1 in the country with a 13.2 turnover rate.
“We had more turnovers than what we probably expected,” said point guard Bell, who finished with four turnovers. “I know I did myself.”
Ball-handling is a preseason concern for the team, which currently lacks a traditional point guard with Bijan Cortes (academics) sidelined until he receives a waiver decision from the NCAA.
Bell (13 points, five assists) started at point guard and spent the majority of his 30 minutes running the offense for the Shockers, while Colby Rogers and Harlond Beverly split time running plays in the other minutes. But that trio only made up seven of the team’s turnovers, as the bulk of WSU’s mistakes came from players trying to do too much.
Mills believes decision-making can be improved through film and practice.
“There was one example where Kenny made a great decision to (Isaac Abidde) at the top of the key off of a double team,” Mills said. “Instead of shooting it or one-more (passing) to Colby, he tried to split it. Those are just simpler decisions to make without making things that complicated. I think you just got to go through the film and have guys understand that.”
The high number of turnovers muted WSU’s offensive efficiency for the game, which finished at a rather pedestrian (considering the competition) 1.09 points per possession.
3. Improved outside shooting remains to be seen
It’s a familiar refrain to Shockers fans every fall when they hear about how players have improved their outside shot during the summer and WSU should be a better 3-point shooting team this season.
Since Landry Shamet, Conner Frankamp and Austin Reaves were torching nets in the 2017-18 season, WSU hasn’t made more than 34% of their 3-pointers in the last five seasons. In three of those seasons, WSU ranked among the worst outside-shooting teams in the country.
The rims inside Koch Arena once again were unkind to the home team on Sunday, as a new batch of WSU players dealt with the same struggles with a 5-for-21 performance beyond the arc for 23.8% accuracy.
Bell said the more the ball moves, the better shots WSU finds. That was a work-in-progress on Sunday.
“We try to play with pace and space and getting the ball moving from side to side, not just sticking with one person or relying on one person to go 1-on-1,” Bell said.
A handful of those 3-pointers were forced up unnecessarily, but WSU generally took good looks from the perimeter. Rogers, hailed as one of the nation’s top sharpshooters, finished 3 for 10 from the field and missed all four of his shots beyond the arc on Sunday, while Miami transfer Harlond Beverly connected on just 1 of 5 from distance.
The bright spot was the shooting of Missouri State graduate transfer Dalen Ridgnal, who spotted up around the perimeter and knocked down three 3-pointers from all around the arc in scoring 11 points off the bench.