SALT LAKE CITY — Wichita State senior Carl Hall wanted a new look for his last hurrah, especially with a huge test coming up against Pittsburgh 7-footer Steven Adams today in the Shockers’ NCAA tournament opener.
Hall shed his dreadlocks as the ninth-seeded Shockers geared up for the No. 8 Panthers.
“I just wanted to try something different,” the 6-3, 238-pound Hall said Wednesday. “I wanted to be like a new person coming into this tournament, play harder and just give it my all. It’s my senior year, so I’m trying to get focused.”
While Pitt and Wichita State in many ways are mirror images of each other because of their emphasis on defense, there is a major difference in the battle of bigs. Hall is a 23-year-old sixth-year senior from Georgia and Adams a 19-year-old freshman from New Zealand, where the approaching rugby season draws more interest than March Madness.
Adams insists he is “in the moment” despite not knowing a few years ago what the NCAA tournament was.
“If you’re in the tournament right now and your mindset ain’t here, you’re obviously going to lose,” said Adams, a gold tooth sparkling through his smile.
Adams first had to take care of a bloody nose Wednesday, the result of an accidental elbow from teammate Dante Taylor.
“We all mess each other up at practice because we go so hard,” Taylor said. “I got hit in my eye again today. Durand (Johnson) busted his lip. Pretty much somebody comes out bleeding every day.”
Thursday’s game likely won’t be much different.
“I know three years ago when we played them, they had the same approach,” senior guard Tray Woodall said of Wichita State. “They had guys that played really, really hard. It reminded us of our style of play in the Big East.”
Experts have the game pegged as the lowest-scoring in the first two full days, not surprising as Pitt (24-8) ranks sixth nationally in scoring defense (55.4 points a game) and the Shockers allow 60.7. Both teams also control the boards, with Wichita State (26-8) averaging 38.4 rebounds a game and the Panthers ninth in rebounding margin.
“The winner on the boards is going to win the game,” said Hall, who is averaging 12.8 points and 7.2 boards.
Both teams are hungry for different reasons.
Pitt is making its 24th tourney appearance but hasn’t advanced past the Elite Eight. The Panthers didn’t qualify last year, a memory that sticks with Woodall. And this is the highest they have been seeded since they were a No. 9 seed in 2005 and lost to Pacific in the opening round.
Wichita State, meanwhile, made a quick departure last year, ousted by Virginia Commonwealth, 62-59, in its opening game.
“It lingers with our group of seniors,” Hall said. “We don’t want to go out this year.”
Adams, of course, has never been part of the NCAAs. He is just getting started in his career after coach Jamie Dixon, who once played basketball in New Zealand, discovered him there a few years ago.
Though Adams still is a teen with a quirky sense of humor, his story has been well-documented. He is the youngest of 18 children and has an older sister who won a pair of Olympic gold medals in shot put.
While the budding star is still trying to fine-tune his game offensively, he can be a beast on the boards.
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said 7-foot Nigerian Ehimen Orukpe, who averages just 16 minutes a game, will be called on to help against Adams and the Panthers.
“He is not the most polished offensive player in the world, but he rebounds,” Marshall said of Orukpe, a senior. “He protects the basket and we will certainly need him in games such as this where we’re playing high-level size, athleticism and skill.”
Adams answers simply when discussing what makes Wichita State’s front line formidable.
“They’re tall,” Adams said of facing two 6-8 players and Orukpe.
Hall already knows he’ll have to alter his attack.
“I’ve got to try to go around him because he’s such a great shot blocker,” Hall said.