Strunk: Bench Austin Reaves


Brian Hayes

Wichita State guard Austin Reaves sits on the bench before being announced at the game against the UCF Knights at Koch Arena.

Wichita State had a chance to beat Houston and play for a shot at the American Athletic Conference tournament title and an improved seed in the national tournament.

With six seconds on the clock and trailing a single point, 75-74, the Shockers had more than enough time to put themselves in position for a game-winning shot. All Austin Reaves had to do was get the ball in-bounds to Conner Frankamp.

He didn’t get the ball to Frankamp. In fact, he didn’t even come close. Reaves’ weak in-bounds pass was easily picked off by Houston’s Galen Robinson, Jr., effectively putting an end to the Shockers’ conference tournament title hopes.

Reaves was forced to call a timeout on a loose ball after nearly committing a turnover just seconds earlier, setting up the final in-bounds play.

Just more than a minute before, Reaves failed to handle a long pass from Landry Shamet — a turnover that led to a go-ahead layup for Houston.

This isn’t the first time this season a late-game mishap from Reaves has cost the Shockers a game. Reaves had an inbounds pass swiped out of his hands and missed the front end of a crucial one-and-one free throw as the Shockers gave up a late lead to Notre Dame in the championship of the Maui Invitational in November.

He had the opportunity later in the season against Central Florida, when he failed to pull in a loose ball in the final seconds, resulting in a Central Florida game-tying three. The Shockers won the game in overtime, but weren’t so fortunate against Houston in the conference tournament.

Reaves has shown in flashes that he can be a volume scorer. He averages almost two three-pointers per game, on an impressive 43 percent clip. But he’s at his best when the game isn’t on the line. His career-high 23 points came almost entirely in the first half of a comfortable 19-point win over Tulsa. He put up 22 in a blowout win over Memphis.

The truth is, the margin for error in the final minutes of close games is razor thin. A single errant pass, missed defensive assignment, or missed free throw could really be the difference between a win and a loss.

Both of Reaves’s game-losing mistakes came in tournament play, when the pressure was heightened and it was win-or-go-home.

The Shockers could afford the loss early in the season to Notre Dame. The loss to Houston was more costly, but not devastating — the Shockers still earned a No. 4 seed in the national tournament.

The national tournament is a different beast. Every game could be the last, so mistakes are magnified.

The Shockers will find themselves in a crucial late-game situation if they plan to make a deep run. That’s just the nature of March Madness. When that time comes, the Shockers need to have five players on the court that can be trusted to handle the pressure.

If I were the coach, I know whose hands I would want to keep the ball out of.