That team Wichita State had in 2011-12 was loaded, wasn’t it?
There were five seniors in prominent roles. The Shockers were the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season champions and earned a 5-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Then it was over. Just like that, the Shockers were bounced out of the tournament by VCU, a 12 win over a 5 that felt nothing like an upset.
“I didn’t touch a basketball for about a month,’’ said Joe Ragland, the leading scorer on last season’s team who is playing professionally in Spain. “It was really difficult. We were a great team and we knew it, but once we got that matchup against VCU, we knew we were going to have to play their style.’’
If a Shocker team was going to make a deep run in the tournament, it looked like that was the one. And when it didn’t happen, the thinking was that it might take a while to get back.
But it didn’t.
The 2012-13 Shockers are the team that has broken down the door in the NCAA Tournament, winning two games already and a is favorite over La Salle in the Sweet 16 round Thursday night in Los Angeles.
Carl Hall and Demetric Williams are the only players on this season’s team who played much last season.
The Shockers lost 74 percent of their scoring and 59 percent of their rebounding. Those five departing seniors took 73 percent of the shots and 82 percent of the three-pointers. They accounted for 70 percent of the assists, 63 percent of the steals and 67 percent of the free throws.
“That program re-loads now,’’ said Toure Murry, a 2012 senior who is playing for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers as a developmental player for the NBA’s Houston Rockets. “They’re definitely on the rise.’’
Ragland, Murry and David Kyles, all part of a dynamic WSU backcourt last season, said they are locked in to the Shockers as Wichita State is on its best NCAA run in seven years.
“I’ve been watching, man,’’ said Kyles, who is recovering from an ankle injury in San Antonio after spending the time playing professional basketball in Slovakia. “It’s pretty amazing, but it’s also well-deserved.’’
All of the former Shockers who helped WSU coach Gregg Marshall rebuild the program no doubt feel a part of this. Especially Murry and Kyles, part of a program-changing recruiting class in 2008.
Ragland, a junior-college transfer who joined the team for the 2010-11 season, said he could tell the Shockers wouldn’t fall off much, if at all, after last season.
“I think Cleanthony (Early) has had a lot to do with the team’s success,’’ Ragland said. “Malcolm (Armstead) played at a high level at Oregon and already knew the system because he redshirted last year at WSU. Then you have Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, young guys who haven’t been in this position before, but guys who are really mentally tough.’’
Returning players Williams, Hall, Tekele Cotton, Jake White and Ehimen Orukpe have assumed larger roles this season. Armstead and Baker, who were able to practice with the Shockers while sitting out, aren’t typical newcomers to a program. Early stormed his way into an important offensive role as a junior-college transfer. So, at times, have Nick Wiggins and Chadrack Lufile. And freshman point guard Fred VanVleet has been as important as anyone the last half of the season. And don’t forget about sophomore Evan Wessel, who was having a nice season until it was ended early on by a finger injury.
That, apparently, is the formula for replacing five departed starters.
Ragland, Murry and Kyles said they keep in touch with the current Shockers and were busy texting their buddies after WSU’s 76-70 win over Gonzaga on Saturday night in Salt Lake City, the victory that sent Wichita State to the Sweet 16.
“I got on Skype with Malcolm a couple of weeks ago,’’ Murry said. “After that game, I got in touch with a few guys. I’m so impressed with how we fight and how tough we are. Everybody didn’t expect this team to be as good as we were last year, but they came together.’’
Kyles (Dallas) and Murry (Houston) formed a strong friendship at WSU. And early on, they set about achieving one goal.
“When Toure and I were freshman and living in the dorm together,’’ Kyles said, “we talked about how we wanted to at least get to the NCAA Tournament before we graduated. We knew we had a lot of work to do. But we were willing to work.’’
Not that they had a choice.
Marshall, as Kyles, Murry and anyone else who has played for him learned, was unwilling to accept less than anyone’s best effort. He grinded, so his players grinded.
“I was talking to Cleanthony one day and he was telling me how hard practices are,’’ Kyles said. “Everybody knows that Coach Marshall gets very involved with his team. And I just told him that he wasn’t going to realize how good of a coach (Marshall) is until you leave. How Coach Marshall can get a group of guys to play together and not worry about their points and stuff. Not too many coaches can do that because there are always a lot of egos and personalities going through a team.’’
Most of the 2011-12 Shockers had experienced an NIT championship in 2011. They led WSU to its first NCAA appearance since 2006 after winning only the school’s second Missouri Valley Conference championship in 29 years.
It’s a team, and a group of players, that most thought was destined for an NCAA Tournament breakthrough. It didn’t happen.
But it’s happening now, with those five departed players spread out all across the world.
“I felt like even though Gonzaga was a No. 1 seed that they were still a mid-major and hadn’t played a good team in months,’’ Ragland said. “And I knew the toughness and physicality that we had. I knew we would give them problems. I even tweeted a couple of guys that we were going to beat Gonzaga.’’
Ragland and the others might be gone. But they’re really not.