Big men to challenge Shockers in First Four

Evan Pflugradt

Dayton, Ohio — On Tuesday night, 6-foot-7 sophomore Shaq Morris will lineup for the opening tip, sizing his man, Vanderbilt’s 7-foot forward Damian Jones. Five inches may not seem like much, and for Morris, the opponent may as well be considered even matched.

Wichita State’s First Four game in Dayton will be the third time Morris has sized up with NBA-level prospects, facing Utah’s Jakob Poeltl, UNLV’s Stephen Zimmerman and now, Vanderbilt’s Damian Jones.

“Damian Jones moves extremely well for a seven-footer,” WSU head coach Gregg Marshall said. “When you look at him, you think you’re looking at a 6-foot-6 kid out there because of the way he moves, he’s so naturally gifted athletically.”

It will be the first time Morris sizes up against two seven-footers.

“We haven’t had many seven-footers this year,” senior guard Ron Baker said.

There’s an added emphasis on the plural usage in his statement. Vanderbilt will roll out two seven-footers, 245-lb Damian Jones and 7-foot-1 240-lb Luke Kornet, a size matchup Morris and 6-foot-4 senior Evan Wessel, physically, don’t stack up to.

“We’re just trying to bring our fives in waves and try to wear them down,” senior guard Fred VanVleet said. “I think maybe try to play some of our depth in that position. It’s going to take a group effort, but we faced challenges this year, I think we’ll be prepared for it. As far as disadvantage/advantages they have, there are pros and cons of having those big guys, it’s a matter of who can exploit what the best.”

Morris handled two NBA-level prospects in Zimmerman, who recorded 11 points and six rebounds after giving up four personal turnovers, against Poeltl, WSU also clawed out four turnovers. Poeltl tallied 11 points and nine rebounds, but was stripped at moments that changed the game.

In Intrust Bank, WSU pulled the life out of Utah when Poeltl was on the bench. In a wave-unit, the forwards wore out the depth of the Utes, Baker believes that strategy can be adapted to compete with any team, despite the size and talent of their opponent.

“Our fives, we play in waves,” Baker said. “We don’t have a five-man that plays over 27 minutes a game. So our idea is to be fresh in your end and play as hard as you can. Don’t need you on the court for six or seven minutes at a time, if we can play in waves and rebound the basketball like we have been this season, our defense is playing at a pretty decent level right now.”

Expect a rotation of Morris, senior Anton Grady and sophomore Rauno Nurger. The one thing limiting the Shockers rotation, could be the whistle. In St. Louis, foul trouble limited Morris and Grady for the first half of both the quarterfinals and semifinals.

Consider, Morris did not record a personal foul in 17 minutes of play against Missouri State earlier in February. Regardless of the whistle, Marshall said he plans to sub frequently, a replacement filtered in every two to three minutes.

“We want to keep them fresh,” he said. “There’s very little drop-off when you go from Shaq Morris to Anton Grady to Rauno Nurger. We’re going to try to keep them fresh and perhaps playing at 100 percent peak efficiency versus Damian Jones. We’ve got to make sure that we’re the fresher, more energetic, more passionate team.”

Damian Jones is a projected 2016 NBA lottery pick, Jones averages 14.2 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Kornet, averages 8.9 points, 7.2 rebounds and three blocks per game. Jones was listed by Jeff Goodman of ESPN.com as a first-team preseason All-American, Goodman also named Jones to his own five-man dream team.

Height, a factor or not, will be presently in favor of Vanderbilt, but the Commodores think little of their big advantage.

“There’s not much that’s more overrated than height in a basketball game,” Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings said. “Sometimes those 6-foot-8 guys are a lot more mobile or they might be wider and stronger and more physical. You would much rather have strength and physicality and quickness and speed and skill. The height thing can be very, very overrated.”