Wichita State senior Carl Hall underestimates the response he will receive from the Koch Arena crowd when he checks in during Wednesday’s game against Illinois State.
“I don’t know — they might go crazy,” Hall said.
There is no might about it.
WSU (15-2, 4-1 Missouri Valley Conference) went 6-1 in the seven games Hall missed with a broken right thumb and there is no doubt fans can’t wait to see him in uniform, hustling after rebounds and powering to the basket. His teammates feel the same way.
“It feels real good,” forward Cleanthony Early said. “We’ve been waiting for this day.”
Hall practiced Monday and Tuesday for the first time in four weeks. He broke the thumb in practice following WSU’s loss at Tennessee on Dec. 13. With no setbacks in practice, he is ready to come off the bench against the Redbirds (9-8, 0-5).
“It feels pretty good to be back out there with the team,” he said. “It’s still tender, but it’s something you’ve got to play through.”
Hall averaged 13.9 points (tops on the team when injured) and a team-leading 7.6 rebounds. He says he kept his weight and strength up while out. He isn’t sure how many minutes he can play, recognizing that it will take time to play extended minutes at full power after the time off.
“I’m in shape,” he said. “Whatever they need me to play, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Hall’s return should help the Shockers with a number of deficiencies. He gives them a low-post scorer who gobbles up offensive rebounds and draws fouls, all of which will help WSU’s scoring. He is the lone Shocker post player who can force teams to commit two defenders and he is a shot-blocker. While WSU’s scoring and shooting percentages went up in MVC play (without Hall), coach Gregg Marshall knows that his return will make everybody better. Hall is back at a critical moment, with WSU coming off its first conference loss Sunday at Evansville and facing Illinois State and then No. 12 Creighton on Saturday.
“I just think it’s going to be easier for us now, with being able to plug him in a few minutes here and there,” Marshall said. “Just having him out there will give everyone else a boost. We need that against these two teams this week.”
If the Shockers wore down playing through injuries and a thin bench the past month, help is on the way. Early, who took over the scoring lead with Hall out, is practicing at the small forward position in case Marshall wants to play with a big lineup with Hall, Early and center Ehimen Orukpe. Before the injury, Hall and Orukpe rarely played together and Early played power forward.
“Our best player is coming back and that will pick us up,” guard Malcolm Armstead said. “He looked pretty good, making jump shots, finishing around the rim, rebounding.”
Illinois State is the MVC’s biggest disappointment. It was picked second in the preseason poll, based on last season’s run to the tournament title game and a win in the NIT. However, a coaching change and the loss of freshman guard Nic Moore, who followed coach Tim Jankovich to SMU, has the Redbirds looking more like the team that went 9-9 in the MVC in 2012 than a title contender. Distractions are part of the problem. Guard Tyler Brown, who scorched WSU for 25 points in last season’s MVC Tournament, missed Saturday’s game at Drake with a suspension for conduct detrimental to the team. In his previous game, Brown, who averages 15.3 points, went scoreless and took two shots against Missouri State. He practiced this week and his status for Wednesday’s game is uncertain.
The Redbirds are at their lowest point since the 2010-11 team started 0-8 in conference play. They are making it close, losing their MVC games by an average of 6.2 points.
“I do think we’re staying together, even though we’re not playing well,” first-year coach Dan Muller said.
The Redbirds held WSU to 34.9-percent shooting in last season’s 65-64 win in the MVC Tournament semifinals. They are not playing defense anywhere close to that level this season. Opponents are making 47.7 percent of their shots in MVC play against Illinois State, 41.8 percent from three-point range.
“Our defensive numbers are not good at all,” Muller said. “We’ve got a lot of things that have slipped. Defensively, our intensity is nowhere near where it needs to be.”