The monster has been created. And now the monster needs to be kept on a feeding schedule.
With 145 wins over the past five seasons, which includes an NIT championship, an NCAA Final Four and a 35-0 unbeaten string before a loss to Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament’s third round, the Shockers are a college basketball beast. And beasts eat a lot.
The Shockers’ ascent has been breathtaking, like a ride with the Blue Angels. But the higher you fly, the farther you could fall and there are no guarantees of continual high flight.
It appears Gregg Marshall will be back for an eighth season as coach. His grade so far is A-plus-plus-plus.
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Can he keep bringing home those great grades? That’s one of the biggest questions surrounding Shocker basketball. Here are some others:
1. Can Wichita State maintain its high level of success?
It depends on how you define “high level.” I wouldn’t look for the Shockers to win their first 35 games next season. But the 2014-15 season looks promising. WSU will be a strong favorite to win another Missouri Valley Conference championship and get to the NCAA Tournament. The Shockers’ loss to Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament wasn’t as disappointing as it could have been, considering it kept WSU out of the Sweet 16. Why? Because it was against Kentucky, one of the country’s most-storied programs and a team that played much better than its 8-seed indicated. Will Shocker fans be as understanding if next year’s team doesn’t get to the Sweet 16? It depends. But it’s a legitimate question.
2. How does Wichita State replace Cleanthony Early?
Tough one. Early was WSU’s most gifted offensive player in years. He scored 24 in a national semifinal loss to Louisville last season and topped it with 31 in the Kentucky game. Opposing defenses always had to account for Early, who scored in many ways. It’ll take a step up in production from the returning Shockers and the hope that an incoming recruit can provide some scoring punch, too. Early isn’t irreplaceable, but he’s as tough to replace as any player Wichita State has lost in a while.
3. How does Marshall replace his top assistant, Chris Jans?
Jans was invaluable not only as a teacher, but as a game planner, recruiter and buffer between Marshall and his players. Jans, who left to become coach at Bowling Green, had been Marshall’s top lieutenant since Marshall came to Wichita State in 2007. They not only coached together, but are good friends. It’ll be interesting to see whether the coach Marshall hires becomes his No. 1 assistant or whether that job goes to current assistants Greg Heiar or Steve Forbes.
4. How will freshman redshirt Shaq Morris perform?
There has been concern about Morris’ dedication to becoming the player the Shockers believe he can be. But over the past couple of months, it appears, Morris has become more determined, shedding some weight. He has the body to help replace departing big men Chadrack Lufile and Kadeem Coleby. And he undoubtedly has more offensive skill than either of those players.
5. What’s the incoming recruiting class like?
Marshall loves it, even though there is still probably one hole to be filled. The Shockers would like an experienced big man to join Morris and senior-to-be Darius Carter in the frontcourt. Seven-footer Bush Wamukota, a junior-college transfer, also could fill that void. Forwards Rashard Kelly and Zach Brown, both incoming freshmen, look like ready-to-contribute commodities. The Shockers also could get something soon from incoming point guard Corey Henderson. Another redshirt freshman, Ria’n Holland, can really shoot.
6. Will the Shockers start recruiting bigger names thanks to the recent success?
Marshall has said he and his staff are getting into more homes and talking to better players because of the increased profile of the program. But Marshall has a style of recruiting that has worked for him for years. He’s unlikely to change it up too much. He preaches a team game and isn’t one for individual accomplishments. Early, gifted as he was, averaged about 16 points this season. In other programs, that number would have been over 20.
7. Does the Missouri Valley Conference get better?
It can’t get much worse. The Valley didn’t put up much of a fight against the Shockers this season. Next year should be better. D.J. Balentine is a big-time player at Evansville and the Aces have some others to lend support. Northern Iowa returns everyone, as does Illinois State. Southern Illinois is improving. Missouri State has some pieces. The Shockers probably won’t go unbeaten in the MVC, but should still be the dominant team.
8. What about the schedule?
Wichita State will play home games against Alabama, Tulsa and Saint Louis next season, though the Billikens lose a bunch of seniors. The Shockers will have a game against Memphis in Sioux Falls, S.D., of all places. And there has not been an official announcement of WSU’s opponent at Intrust Bank Arena, although Alabama could conceivably fill that bill. The Shockers should get some national television offers, too.
9. How do Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton look?
Pretty good, if you ask me. It has to be a comfortable feeling for Marshall knowing that he has this nucleus returning. How much more can they do? All improved immensely from last season to this. I look for continued improvement in 2014-15.
10. Could Carter be the X-Factor?
I think so. I said earlier this season that it wouldn’t shock me if Carter, who averaged 7.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 18.2 minutes, is the leading scorer next season. That might be a stretch. Carter, though, didn’t do much in the loss to Kentucky with five points and one rebound. He, Lufile and Coleby contributed three rebounds in 41 minutes against the Wildcats.