Through March and into April, Wichita State struck a balance between celebrating and preparing for the next step. That continued even after a Final Four loss to Louisville, when coach Gregg Marshall signaled his team expects to remain a nationally prominent program.
“This is just a beginning,” Marshall said. “A lot of good young players in that locker room. All they’re talking about right now is working hard this summer and getting better, so … I’m pretty excited about it.”
WSU’s first Final Four appearance since 1965 will carry the Shockers through the summer and into the preseason national rankings, perhaps as high as the top 15. Soon after, the Shockers will play basketball again and prepare to be the big game on every opponent’s schedule. WSU’s seniors dragged the Shockers out of a slump and into the NCAA Tournament. Once there, WSU’s youngsters played a major role in extending the stay. The contributions of players such as Cleanthony Early, Tekele Cotton and Ron Baker will make WSU the preseason favorite in the Missouri Valley Conference next fall.
“We are still not satisfied,” Cotton said. “We’re going to come back next year, come at it again and work hard during the summer. We will get right back here next year.”
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Marshall couldn’t help gushing about the future during the tournament, thrilled by the play of freshmen guards Baker and Fred VanVleet, and Cotton, a sophomore forward. Add Early, a junior forward, and WSU already owns the makings of a strong starting five. Sophomore Evan Wessel, a starting forward before a broken pinky finger ended his season in December, also returns.
“The backcourt is in great hands with Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker,” Marshall said.
The returning Shockers, even those who didn’t play in the NCAA Tournament, received an up-close education in big-time basketball, how to prepare and how to win. WSU made its fourth straight NCAA or NIT appearance, moving up each season. In 2010, it exited the NIT without a win. In 2011, it won the NIT. One year later, it returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006 before losing its opening game. In 2013, the Shockers stormed their way to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta and played eventual champion Louisville to the final seconds before losing 72-68.
“It is a huge stepping stone and something we can look back on and work for,” VanVleet said. “Guys that are coming back, now we have motivation for next year.”
WSU loses four seniors, all of whom started at least 20 games. Guards Malcolm Armstead, Most Outstanding Player in the West Regional, and Demetric Williams set WSU’s aggressive defense. Forward Carl Hall provided WSU’s inside scoring and led the team in rebounding. Center Ehimen Orukpe blocked 56 shots, tied for fourth-most in a season. During the NCAA Tournament, Marshall signaled his plans for the future by reducing Williams’ and Orukpe’s minutes in favor of younger players.
Marshall is also excited about players who spent the season hidden away. Center Kadeem Coleby, a 6-foot-9 transfer from Louisiana-Lafayette, sat out while practicing with the team. He is expected to replace the production of Hall and Orukpe. He averaged 9.5 points and 4.9 rebounds at Louisiana-Lafayette, starting 30 games, and will have one season of eligibility at WSU. Freshman forward Derail Green, an excellent shooter, redshirted, as did walk-on Zach Bush, a forward from Goddard.
“The standard is set pretty high,” Green said. “We’re going to have to work in the offseason.”
The five-man recruiting class features two transfers and three high school players. Forward Earl Watson, 6-foot-8, averaged 9.5 points and 6.4 rebounds for Chipola (Fla.) College. Center Shaq Morris, 6-8, earned MVP honors in Oklahoma’s Class 6A tournament for Edmond Memorial. Ria’n Holland, from South View (N.C.) and D.J. Bowles, from Oldsmar Christian (Fla.) can play both guard positions. Forward Darius Carter, a 6-foot-7 sophomore from Vincennes (Ind.) University, recently gave WSU a non-binding oral commitment.
“We really like our incoming class,” Marshall said.
WSU will lack experience, compared to its past two NCAA teams. Four seniors (Early, Coleby, Nick Wiggins and Chadrack Lufile) lead the roster. None of them possess more than a year of time in a WSU uniform and none are four-year Division I players.
VanVleet, Baker and Wessel, with a combined 22 starts, are replacing Armstead, who played two seasons at Oregon before transferring to WSU, and Williams, who started 51 games in four seasons at WSU and won 111 games, more than any other Shocker. WSU also loses Hall, a two-season member of the rotation and Orukpe, who played three seasons at WSU.
VanVleet should fill Armstead’s role as point guard, likely giving WSU a steadier presence. Whether or not he can replace Armstead’s scoring and flair for creating late in the shot clock is unknown. VanVleet handled that role effectively in March, often running the point while Armstead moved to shooting guard. Baker, who made 9 of 21 three-pointers and averaged 11 point in the NCAA Tournament, became a March sensation with his knack for big shots and sharp passes. Cotton shut down a series of top scorers in NCAA games and became a three-point threat. Wessel started WSU’s first eight games and made 11 of 24 threes before injury ended his season.
WSU’s front court could be deeper than this season. Early, named to the NCAA All-Tournament team, will likely be the MVC’s preseason player of the year. Coleby, Watson and Morris are joined by Carter to give the Shockers plenty of big bodies. The roster could change this spring or summer, assuming Carter signs a letter of intent later this month and all five recruits qualify academically. With nine scholarship players returning, WSU would be one over the limit of 13. Sophomore Jake White will not return after receiving his release to transfer.
Carter, an NJCAA All-American, said he chose WSU for its reputation with junior college players and its potential to return to the NCAA Tournament.
“They’ve got most of the team coming back,” Carter said. “I can’t wait to get there.”
Shocker fans know the feeling. They will spend the spring and summer reliving the NCAA Tournament and looking forward to next season at Koch Arena.