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Commentary Bob Lutz: Shockers have minutes available to be earned

  • Published Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, at 6:11 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, at 7:47 p.m.

Carl Hall and Ron Baker were playing the most minutes on a Wichita State basketball team loaded with depth. Now they’re sidelined with injuries and that Shocker depth is going to be tested like never before.

Hall (broken thumb) is expected to miss four weeks. He is the Shockers’ leading scorer and rebounder and he’s also the team’s leader in all of the categories that cannot be measured with numbers.

Baker, the Shockers’ starter at shooting guard, will miss around six weeks with a stress fracture in his foot. The Scott City freshman hasn’t hit his stride as an offensive player, but he’s still one of the most valuable Shockers because of his smarts.

These injuries are heaped on top of the ones already incurred by sophomore forward Evan Wessel and senior center Ehimen Orukpe and they will challenge the once-beaten Shockers to stay above water while the injured recuperate.

Hall, who injured his thumb while trying to break a fall in practice this week, thinks his teammates can pick up the pieces.

“I know they’ll step up,” Hall said. “There will be three or four guys who will get it done.”

Hall averages 13.9 points and 7.6 rebounds, both team highs. He’s been this team’s glue and filling in that kind of production won’t be easy. Look for junior college transfers Cleanthony Early and Chadrack Lufile to take on more responsibilities, along with sophomore Jake White. Early has shown flashes of being a big-time scorer and rebounder. But in games in which he has struggled, Hall has flourished. Early has to be more consistent.

Lufile can’t be counted on to score much, but he’s a big body who should be able to get some of the rebounds Hall was getting.

White, though, could be the key.

He impressed me as a freshman last season in limited minutes, but hasn’t taken the big step this season I thought he would. White was better last week in the Shockers’ road loss at Tennessee and is someone who could become more of a scoring threat in Hall’s absence.

Hall, meanwhile, will work to get back as soon as he possibly can.

“It’s a pretty bad situation but I’m trying to use it as a positive to gather myself,” Hall said. “I look at it as though it could have been worse. People go through much worse situations than this.”

Baker’s loss is more difficult to assess. He’s a coach’s dream because of his willingness — enthusiasm, really — to do all of things on the court that box scores can’t define. So even though the 6-foot-3 Baker is shooting 36.5 percent, his value to the Shockers remained high.

Baker said he first felt something in his left foot on Dec. 10, but what was a minor pain became more and more severe as time passed.

“This is a big stab in the back, but I’m trying to stay positive like Carl,” said Baker, who went stir crazy sitting and watching games last season. “All I can do now is support my team.”

Wichita State is better equipped in the backcourt to handle Baker’s absence than they are in the frontcourt to cover for Hall.

Seniors Malcolm Armstead and Demetric Williams are givens and freshman Fred VanVleet is making strides, although he is still prone to freshman mistakes. Sophomore Tekele Cotton, like White, hasn’t taken the strides I expected him to take and has really struggled with his shooting. Still, I suspect Cotton will see an increase in minutes because of Baker’s injury.

So two promising players who have underachieved — White and Cotton — could be the keys to Wichita State’s success while two mainstays recuperate.

Hall said he’ll push himself to return to the lineup as soon as he can. He’s not deterred, especially because he missed almost two seasons because of a heart condition in 2008.

“Once you go through something like that, where the game of basketball is taken away from you for so long, things like this are nothing,” Hall said. “I decided after I came back from that condition that I was going to stay positive about everything and not let people get me down. Man, though, if this was my left hand and not my right, I’d probably try to play through it.”

Hall said he’ll continue to work out with the team in practices.

“I’m going to be kind of a coach on the sideline,” he said. “I’m going to make sure these guys are going hard and getting better. I’ll be there throwing up some left-handed hook shots and running sprints with them. But I’ll be back so that we can make a run at this thing.”

Losing Hall is a major setback. Having Baker go down just days later is a big blow.

WSU should be OK against Charleston Southern on Thursday night at Koch Arena. But then there’s a tough one against Southern Mississippi at Intrust Bank Arena on Saturday, followed by eight days off before the Missouri Valley Conference opener on Dec. 30 against Northern Iowa at Koch Arena.

The rest of the teams in the Valley no doubt want to pounce on the Shockers while they’re down. It’ll be up to a reshuffled lineup to continue a 9-1 start.

Check Bob Lutz’s blog at blogs.kansas.com/lutz. Reach him at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com.

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