Wichita State with a healthy roster would start Missouri Valley Conference play as a credible challenger to No. 16 Creighton, the preseason favorite. The Shockers, however, start the conference schedule with nine mostly healthy players and down three starters.
What to expect? Coach Gregg Marshall is sure his team will play defense and rebound. He is not sure if that is enough to keep his team on track until help arrives. Leading scorer and rebounder Carl Hall, out with a broken thumb, may return in mid-January. Until then, it’s up to the nine still standing. WSU (11-1) opens MVC play against Northern Iowa (7-5) on Sunday at Koch Arena.
“We’ll just have to go with what we’ve got and defend and rebound as best we can and figure out a way to score and make enough baskets to win,” Marshall said.
Making baskets usually gets tougher in conference play and how the Shockers adjust to that reality will be key to early weeks of the season. Of the nine healthy Shockers, five will navigate MVC defenses for the first time. Of the remaining four, only senior guard Demetric Williams is playing a similar role to past seasons; the other three will be counted on much more heavily. That is quite a switch from the past two seasons, when senior-dominated Shocker teams benefited from years of experience against the physical, mostly man-to-man, defenses in the Valley.
Northern Iowa will start three seniors with four seasons of MVC experience. The Valley is full of that experience, players who know the opponents’ plays as well as they do. Drive to the basket and a defender is likely to lurk in the lane to draw a charge. Try to cut to the basket and your defender will be in your way, bumping and holding to keep you off your sweet spot. Savor the open shots, because they are rare.
“They know your tendencies, so they are able to scout you,” WSU sophomore Jake White said. “They know all your plays. To overcome that, you just need to work hard to get to that open spot and play even more aggressive.”
For newcomers such as forward Cleanthony Early and guard Fred VanVleet, handling MVC play will likely take time.
“You try to describe it, but you really have to experience it,” White said.
The Panthers aren’t an easy first task, despite their record. UNI faced four top-50 teams in the warrennolan.com power rankings (RPI) and its strength of schedule ranks No. 46 nationally. In the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in November, they held Louisville to 51 points and Memphis to 52 in losses.
“They’re tough defensively,” Marshall said. “They don’t over-extend. They make you score over them.”
The Shockers are also equipped to lock down on defense, even missing Hall, forward Evan Wessel (broken pinky) and guard Ron Baker (stress fracture). They held Southern Mississippi to 36 percent shooting in a 59-51 win, their final non-conference game before Christmas. Marshall liked the way his team’s full-court press disrupted Southern Miss, while not giving up easy baskets. The shot-blocking threat of center Ehimen Orukpe kept scorers from driving into the lane. Orukpe blocked three shots. Early also blocked three and Marshall complimented the defensive positioning of Chadrack Lufile, a junior pressed into more playing time with Hall out.
“Even when we pressed, they were reluctant to go in there and attack,” Marshall said. “Which made it easier for me to stay with the pressure. When you can press and there’s very little downside risk, why wouldn’t you stay with it.”
Orukpe, who missed three games with a sprained ankle, played 25 minutes against Southern Miss and moved with close to his usual agility. However, Marshall said the break didn’t help the ankle as much as hoped. Guard Tekele Cotton, slowed by a bruised ankle, also came back gimpy.
“It’s just a nagging deal and it’s not going to get any better for awhile,” Marshall said. “They’ve just got to play through it.”