Former conference rivals tangle in West Lafayette for a matchup with USC
An old Missouri Valley Conference rivalry will get renewed to open up the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Wichita State makes its second appearance in the First Four when it faces fellow No. 11 seed Drake on Thursday night. The winner will face No. 6 USC on Saturday.
Fans of the Shockers might be feeling a bit of deja vu looking at the bracket. When Wichita State snagged one of the final four at-large bids in 2016, it dismantled fellow 11-seed Vanderbilt and No. 6 Arizona before bowing out against No. 3 Miami in the second round. This time, the Shockers are hoping to knock off Drake for the right to get a shot at upsetting another Pac-12 team.
For the Bulldogs, this is a chance to cap their best season in ages with the program's first NCAA Tournament victory since 1971. Drake returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008 when it lost to Western Kentucky in overtime after earning a No. 5 seed that year.
Wichita State and Drake have met 151 times. The Shockers lead the series 104-47 and have won the last 11 meetings between the two schools dating back to 2012.
First Four: No. 11 Drake Bulldogs (25-4) vs. No. 11 Wichita State Shockers (16-5)
Time: Thursday, March 18 at 6:27 p.m. ET
Where: Mackey Arena (West Lafayette, Ind.)
Spread: Drake -1.0
Keys for Drake
Winning the rebound battle is critical. Wichita State is weak on the glass but finds ways to smother opponents in other areas. Drake typically does not waste possessions. The Bulldogs are shooting 49.4 percent from the field as a team, ranking 13th nationally. Misses will come at a larger clip against the Shockers, who allow opponents to shoot just 40.3 percent from the field. But Wichita State allows 12.4 offensive rebounds per game, one of the worst rates in the nation.
Joseph Yesufu will need to continue his elevated play. ShanQuan Hemphill, the team's leading scorer (14.1 ppg) and rebounder (6.3 rpg), remains questionable after being sidelined for four weeks with a fractured foot. Roman Penn, the team's assist leader (5.5 apg), also is sidelined after suffering a season-ending foot injury in late February. Yesufu has picked up the slack in their absence, averaging 23.1 points in his last seven games.
Keys for Wichita State
Forcing Drake to the perimeter will be critical to shutting down the Bulldogs' efficient offense. Drake only attempted 19 3-pointers per game in Missouri Valley Conference play and rank 275th nationally in 3-point shot attempts. The Bulldogs average seven made threes per game this season. Letting the Bulldogs get comfortable inside the arc will be a mistake. Drake ranks in the top 30 nationally in 2-point field goal percentage, making 55.1 percent of those attempts.
Success will partially hinge on Tyson Etienne's ability to get going against the Bulldogs' defense. Etienne earned AAC Co-Player of the Year honors after averaging 17.0 points per game. He makes 3.1 3-pointers per game and shoots 39.9 percent from long distance. Alterique Gilbert and Morris Udeze are capable complementary scorers, but the Shockers are at their best when Etienne is the main engine powering the offense. Wichita State is 8-1 in games where he has scored at least 20 points this season.
Wichita State overcame significant offseason turmoil and 10 COVID-19 related game cancellations to become AAC regular-season champions. That isn't an easy feat to pull off in one of the nation's better basketball leagues. Drake is missing key players at the wrong time. The Shockers are a strong defensive team and force opponents to make numerous mistakes. While the Bulldogs are a team full of efficient shooters, they also did it at full strength while facing significantly weaker opponents than Wichita State. The Shockers will find just enough of an edge to notch their 12th straight win in their series with Drake.
Prediction: Wichita State 68, Drake 65
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports, and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.