Wichita State is 11-1, or 2-0, or 0-0, depending on the perspective this season.
No matter how the success is calculated, the Shockers are in great shape at the holiday break, especially considering the injury list. They wrapped up the pre-Christmas, non-conference schedule with a 59-51 victory over Southern Mississippi on Saturday at Intrust Bank Arena. A rally from a 12-point second-half deficit gives them something to savor, instead of introducing questions about survival without three injured starters.
“Winning this game gives us a lot of confidence going into conference play,” senior Demetric Williams said. “With a loss, it would have been still on our heads through Christmas break.”
Leading scorer and rebounder Carl Hall (broken thumb) isn’t coming back until mid-January. Guard Ron Baker (stress fracture, left foot) is out two weeks longer than Hall. Forward Evan Wessel (broken pinky) is an unknown. With all three out, the Shockers are 2-0. On Saturday, injuries reduced the healthy roster to eight when forward Jake White sat out with back spasms that popped up during warmups.
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It is easy to forget that WSU’s 11-1 record should be viewed as an accomplishment, given it lost its top five scorers from last season. All the non-conference work goes into the background with the start of Missouri Valley Conference play. WSU opens against Northern Iowa (7-5) on Dec. 30 at Koch Arena.
“It’s going to be hard,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “We’ve said that all along. That’s why we’re asking the crowd to rally around us.”
WSU survived its two games with a diminished roster with reserves contributing in bigger roles, a development that could pay off big when starters return. Nick Wiggins, a junior transfer, averaged 11.5 points and made 4 of 6 threes in wins over Charleston Southern and Southern Mississippi. Chadrack Lufile, also a junior transfer, grabbed 12 rebounds against Charleston Southern. Guard Tekele Cotton, moved into the starting lineup, has nine rebounds and five steals in the past two games.
“My teammates, Malcolm, Demetric, other guys, just tell me to be ready for my opportunity to step up and fill the empty spaces,” Wiggins said. “Coaches told me to be ready, smart and aggressive.”
The Shockers aren’t as deep without the three starters. Their ability to score in the lane is diminished without Hall. Their defense, however, remains a strong point. They held Southern Miss to 36 percent shooting, 33.3 percent in the second half. That effort continues a season-long trend of shutting down opponents in the second half. WSU held eight of its 12 opponents to under 43 percent shooting in the second half. Five failed to make better than 40 percent and six failed to make more than nine baskets in 20 minutes.
That can cover up some of WSU’s weaknesses in three-point shooting (31.1 percent for the season) and a recent rise in turnovers.
“We just play hard defense and stay together,” Williams said. “It’s unfortunate that we’re missing some big keys of our team, but everybody on this team still believes that we’re a good contender.”
WSU enters MVC play with a strong NCAA Tournament at-large resume. Its power ranking (RPI) of No. 15 (according to warrennolan.com) is tops in the conference, two spots ahead of Creighton. WSU is 1-0 against top-50 teams, 2-1 against the top 100 and its win over No. 30 Virginia Commonwealth is the best recorded by any MVC team.
WSU will likely play shorthanded until mid-January when Hall returns, unless Wessel can avoid surgery and play with the pinky on his right (shooting) hand taped to his ring finger. That gives the Shockers roughly five or six games to keep that resume strong before help arrives.