Wichita State’s Shaq Morris stood outside the locker room and, in between teary hugs, welcomed questions about the 2017-18 basketball season.
The Shockers will welcome all that comes with it — the expectations, the national rankings, the spotlight as a power outside the power-five conferences. There is no hiding so, as usual, coach Gregg Marshall embraces the idea that his team will advance far into the NCAA Tournament next season.
“We know we can play much better,” Marshall said after Sunday’s 65-62 loss to Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. “If we get a break or two, and another shot goes down, maybe we’re advancing, maybe we win the whole thing. I mean, that’s possible. So that will be our goal next year.”
Morris, a 6-foot-8 junior center, is one of the reasons Marshall can entertain that goal. In mid-January, he moved his needle from potential to reliable and backed it up with Sunday’s 11-point, eight-rebound effort against Kentucky. He returns next season, as does every other member of the rotation.
“We’ll start thinking about (next season) immediately,” Morris said. “We didn’t get off to the start we wanted this year, but still ended up 31-5.”
The Shockers finished the season No. 19 in the Associated Press poll and figure as a top-10 team in the preseason rankings. Morris, a second-team All-Missouri Valley Conference pick, is back. All-MVC guard Landry Shamet and All-MVC forward Markis McDuffie return and will lead the MVC Player of the Year candidate list.
Starters Zach Brown, the team’s top defender, and Conner Frankamp, who made 44 percent of his three-pointers, join them, as do all the important reserves. Seniors J.R. Simon and Zach Bush are the team’s lone departures.
“The great thing is we all come back next year,” junior Rashard Kelly said on Sunday. “The work starts now. When we leave here we have to figure out ways mentally and physically to get better for next year. When we come back, we will reload.”
Wichita State’s win over Dayton and loss to Kentucky showed there is room for improvement. Depth carried the Shockers to 20-point wins against over-matched MVC opponents. The Shockers didn’t play as deep into the bench against top competition, which has to change if they want to reach the Sweet 16 or better next season. Against Dayton, Kelly made the most significant contributions off the bench.
Against Kentucky, Kelly played 22 minutes and no other reserve played more than nine. The bench combined to score 10 points on 5-of-15 shooting with four turnovers.
McDuffie and Frankamp didn’t score with their customary efficiency in NCAA play. McDuffie, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, made 3 of 17 shots and 1 of 9 three-pointers in the two games. Frankamp went 3 for 13 and 3 for 9. McDuffie’s ball-handling problems made it difficult for him to create his own shots. Frankamp struggled to get open against Dayton’s tight defensive pressure.
“We are going to get better,” McDuffie said. “It is crazy that I’m only 19 and I already has so much tournament experience. For me to come back next year knowing what it takes to win is amazing.”
Seniors such as Brown, Morris and Kelly have played in nine NCAA games. Frankamp has eight, including two while at Kansas, and McDuffie and center Rauno Nurger have six.
The program’s track record of improvement also works in their favor. Frankamp improved his shooting numbers from 38.8 percent as a sophomore to 44 percent while maintaining a low-turnover game that served him well at shooting guard. Kelly improved his athletic ability, ballhandling and finishing ability around the rim to enjoy his best season.
WSU would benefit greatly if juniors Darral Willis and Daishon Smith use the off-season to make similar jumps. Both made important contributions, but their play grew inconsistent during January and February. They made minimal contributions in NCAA play. Freshman guard Austin Reaves will have surgery soon to repair the labrum in his right shoulder, the source of three dislocations this season.
The Shockers are scheduled to bring in two recruits. With 12 scholarship players (all but Simon) eligible to return, there will be roster turnover to get down to the NCAA limit of 13 scholarships.
Hutchinson Community College sophomore guard Samajae Haynes-Jones averages 16.1 points and shoots 42.3 percent from three-point range. He is expected to help in the backcourt immediately and can play both guard spots. He could provide enough depth at guard to allow Reaves to consider redshirting for a longer recovery from surgery.
Hutchinson begins play in the NJCAA Tournament at noon Wednesday.
Center Asbjorn Midtgaard, a 6-11 center from Denmark, is considered more of a long-range project. With Morris, Nurger and Willis returning, the Shockers are in solid shape in the post.
Basketball practice is almost a 12-month thing and the Shockers will get back to work in small groups and for individual sessions with coaches soon. When they do, the path to improving is clear and well-worn. It’s produced six consecutive NCAA appearances and a seventh is expected.
The often-discussed seed controversy can be avoided with non-conference victories.
The Shockers should be well-suited to start strong against a schedule that includes a trip to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma at Intrust Bank Arena.
The Maui Invitational field is made up of California, LSU, Marquette, Michigan, Notre Dame, VCU and host Chaminade.