During Louisville's trouncing of Duke during the East Regional final, there was a great deal of praised heaped on the Cardinals' bench players for their contributions in getting U of L to the Final 4. When they face off against Wichita State on Saturday, it will be like looking into a mirror in terms of bench usage, only taken to a greater extreme.
Like any team in the postseason, the Shockers have shortened their bench considerably for the NCAA Tournament, but that doesn't mean that the team has lost the effectiveness they receive from those minutes.
Keep in mind that the Shockers use a starting rotation rather than just one set lineup for any given game. For a certain matchup, Ehimen Orukpe might be in the starting lineup -- as he was against Pittsburgh and Gonzaga, teams with a difficult interior presence to counter. For other games, Cleanthony Early might get the call to start if the Shockers need more speed along the wings and interior defense and rebounding aren't as much of a concern. Ron Baker has also moved into the starting lineup since his return from injury, eliminating the need to rely on Demetric Williams for significant minutes.
This essentially gives the Shockers a pool of seven players that on any given night could be called on to start, a dream scenario for almost any head coach.
What it means from a bench utilization standpoint is that Wichita State essentially gets two starters coming off the bench on any given night. That doesn't even count Fred Van Vleet who would be a starting combo guard for most teams in the country, but is being groomed behind Malcolm Armstead to take over at the point next year.
So that makes three starting-quality bench men. During the NCAA Tournament, Van Vleet is the only player receiving significant minutes. The other players though have made contributions in limited roles, allowing Gregg Marshall to execute surgical strikes.
For example, during the Shockers' Sweet 16 win over La Salle, Orukpe, who started the first two games of the NCAA Tournament, played just eight minutes off the bench. In those eight minutes, he was not called on for any offense, but offered nine rebounds -- four on the offensive end -- and a block.
And let's not forget Van Vleet's three-point prowess, which was massively important in Wichita's win over Gonzaga and has also enabled him to serbe as a decoy on the offensive end because of the danger he represents.
No other team in this Final Four has this Swiss-Army-knife-like ability to rearrange their starting lineup on a whim, and utilize those players not chosen off the bench in such an effective manner -- not even Louisville, a team praised for the ability of its role players, because they are essentially that right now, just role players (Yes, we understand they would probably start at Wichita State).
This is yet another reason why Marshall's team is so dangerous -- after defense, rebounding, shooting, Carl Hall, defense again and Carl Hall -- yes, again. It also might be the biggest justification to think the Shockers have a shot to pull arguable the biggest Final 4 upset ever on Saturday.