KANSAS CITY, Mo. — No. 14 Wichita State is the head-liner in this week’s CBE Classic, a status organizers conferred when they sent out an email in April reading: Wichita State Headlines the Field.
The Shockers are the only ranked team in the field. They are the only team that played in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. They are the local connection and their former star Xavier McDaniel went into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame on Sunday. In most ways (except TV coverage) the CBE Classic is largely about the Shockers, even with Texas, Brigham Young and DePaul in the field.
That might be a new sensation for long-time fans. For the Shockers, it’s what they expect.
“That’s how we always thought of ourselves,” WSU guard Fred VanVleet said. “Now the outside world is thinking that way.”
The Shockers (5-0) open the CBE against DePaul (3-1) on Monday in the Sprint Center and should be at full strength with the return of reserve forward Darius Carter.
The teams met last season in the Cancun Challenge with WSU winning 75-62. The Shockers never trailed, largely because they held the Blue Demons, playing unorganized and carelessly, to 30.6-percent shooting. That loss helped doom DePaul to an 11-21 season in which it went 2-16 in the Big East. That disaster led to big changes. Coach Oliver Purnell brought in seven new players and watched five transfer.
WSU coach Gregg Marshall expects to see a much different team than the one his Shockers handled a year ago in Mexico. DePaul‘s loss is to Southern Mississippi and it regrouped to handle Horizon League favorite Wright State.
“Bigger, bigger and better,” Marshall said. “They’ve beaten some pretty good teams, Milwaukee on the road, Wright State is a very good team from the Horizon.”
Two important components did not change. Forward Cleveland Melvin, who scored 11 points against WSU in Mexico, averages 19. He is 12 of 18 from three-point range. Guard Brandon Young, who scored 19 points against WSU last season, averages 15.8 points.
“Two very, very accomplished players who are now seniors,” Marshall said. “Melvin is playing more on the perimeter. And he still scores inside.”
Freshman center Tommy Hamilton Jr. averages 10.3 points and freshman guard Billy Garrett is second on the team with 16 assists as a reserve.
“They’re real athletic and they’ve got Big East-size,” VanVleet said. “They’ve got a lot of guys back from last year that can really score. It was a tight game last year and they’ve gotten better.”
WSU’s big-man rotation will get its toughest test of the season. Carter, who missed Wednesday’s game at Tulsa with a strained tendon in his right foot, practiced Saturday in Wichita and Sunday at the Sprint Center. He gave a thumbs up regarding his ability to play Monday and said he moved well in the workout.
With starting center Kadeem Coleby in foul trouble at Tulsa, Chadrack Lufile gave WSU a good second half and finished with seven points and 10 rebounds. Marshall played him one minute of the second half in the previous game and Lufile, who started against Tennessee State, got the message that he needed to defend, rebound and avoid fouls.
“Coach held me accountable and I tried to make big plays and handle business like I should,” Lufile said. “I looked on it as an opportunity to work on my game and show Coach I can do what he wants me to do, be a presence inside.”
The Shockers are in the midst of four games away from home after starting the season with four at home. After the two games in Kansas City, WSU goes to Saint Louis on Sunday. It got its road trip off to a good start with the 77-54 win at Tulsa.
“As returners … we talked about it a little bit about with the new guys what it takes to win on the road,” VanVleet said. “That’s when you get closer as a team. You’ve got to keep grinding. You’re not going to win the game on one or two possessions.”
WSU will face either Texas (4-0) or BYU (4-1) on Tuesday.