For a five-game stretch in late November and into December, Rauno Nurger was the starting center for Wichita State’s basketball team.
I’m sure it was a thrill for the 6-foot-10 Nurger, from Estonia, to have his name in lights. And it should never happen again.
At least not until further notice.
In those five games, Nurger played 71 minutes and scored five points to go with nine rebounds. He made 2 of 11 shots. Let’s just say he didn’t exactly take the starting job and run with it.
But in five games since losing his starting spot, Nurger has been a beast. The former Sunrise Christian Academy player has scored 36 points, grabbed 18 rebounds and made 16 of 20 shots in 77 minutes.
Nurger had the best game of his career Sunday in the Shockers’ 80-66 at Northern Iowa. Because so many players were beset by early foul troubles, including starting center Shaq Morris, Nurger played 23 minutes.
They were gold.
He scored 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting, grabbed four rebounds and even handed out a couple of assists.
Nurger has reached double figures in scoring four times this season, all as a non-starter.
“Maybe it’s a sign that I’ve arrived,” Nurger said of his Northern Iowa performance and the taunting he took from UNI students as he proceeded to carve up the Panthers. “I enjoyed it and I’m enjoying every second on the court – especially when I’m doing good.”
Nurger was all set to be redshirted last season. Until, that is, senior Anton Grady suffered a spinal concussion in a game against Alabama in the AdvoCare Invitational in Orlando, Fla., the Shockers’ fifth game of the season.
Needing some interior help, WSU coach Gregg Marshall lifted Nurger’s redshirt and he played in 28 games, averaging 1.6 points and 1.2 rebounds. He was out there for his body, not his production.
This season, though, Nurger has been a key part of the Shockers’ frontcourt, averaging nearly 16 minutes. He’s shooting 59.3 percent from the field, has made 23 of his 32 free-throw attempts and is even a threat from the three-point line, where he’s made 7 of 14.
“He’s stronger,” Marshall said of Nurger. “He’s a skill guy who’s gotten stronger and who understands our system really well. He can really move and change directions very well for a big guy. I’m glad to see him have success because he has worked so hard. I just wish he was a sophomore instead of a junior.”
Nurger, the ultimate “team guy,” understands why he was pressed into duty last season.
“To be honest, I’m just trying to do what is best for the team and best for me,” he said. “I just listen to the coaches and do what they think is best. They thought the best option for me was to take that redshirt off and start playing. I think I did good, especially in the NCAA Tournament. I helped the team get a couple of wins.”
Nurger was especially good in the Shockers’ first NCAA win, a 70-50 win over Vanderbilt, when he scored six points and had three rebounds in 17 minutes. It was obvious his role this season would be expanded and he’s become one of the Shockers’ 10 core players who are averaging 13 minutes or more.
Nurger has a nice offensive repertoire, including a left-handed hook that he has worked hard to develop. He’s also adept at using the backboard when he’s faced up to the basket from an angle.
“When I first came to basketball, I did not have a left hand at all,” Nurger said. “It all started for me back home, when we started working on developing my left hand when I was probably a junior in high school. I like being able to use my left hand because I feel like it helps me create more space between myself and the defender. It gives me just a little more room to be able to get off that shot.”
Nurger is part of a Wichita State frontcourt that includes Morris, Darral Willis and Rashard Kelly, and Marshall can usually count one at least one of those guys to give the Shockers solid production. Sophomore Eric Hamilton has been getting more minutes of late, too.
Willis has been the best of those players, averaging a team-leading 12.1 points and 6.1 rebounds. Morris, though, has once again been limited by injuries and fouls, averaging 16 minutes. Morris’ production (7.4 points, 3.4 rebounds) is solid when he’s out there, he’s just not out there enough.
Nurger, though, has been a good backup. He’s actually gotten to the free-throw line 10 more times than Morris.
“I’ve felt like the game has slowed down for me this season,” Nurger said. “I’ve always been pretty good with my skills, but now I’m able to use them more. When you first come out of high school to the Division I level, the game is a lot faster and the players are more athletic. You have to make quicker decisions and be good with the decisions you make.”
Nurger is in a good spot. He’s become a key contributor on a team that needs him.
Just don’t make Nurger a starter again. He’s just fine coming off the bench.
at Wichita State
- When: 6 p.m. Wednesday
- Where: Koch Arena
- Records: LU 12-5, 2-2 MVC, WSU 14-3, 4-0
- Radio: 103.7-FM
- TV: Cox 22, 2022
- Video: ESPN3.com (blackouts apply)
Loyola at Wichita State
Loyola (12-5, 2-2 MVC): The Ramblers are among the nation’s best teams, according to kenpom.com, at scoring and avoiding turnovers. Their effective field-goal percentage of 58.2 percent ranks seventh nationally. It commits turnovers on 15.8 percent of its possessions, No. 19 nationally. They are shooting 51.3 percent from the field and 44.6 percent from three-point range in MVC play, both tops in the conference. … F Aundre Jackson, who moved to the bench the past two games after starting the previous seven, leads the Valley by making 100 of 142 shots (70.4 percent). He averages 14.4 points. Jackson played at McLennan (Texas) Community College with WSU walk-on Kaelen Malone in 2015-16. … Doyle (4.4), Richardson (3.6) and Custer (3.5) rank in the top eight of MVC assists leaders. Custer (48.6 percent), Ingram (45.5) and Richardson (45.2) rank in the top seven for three-point accuracy. … Loyola is last in the MVC after making 37 of 62 free throws (59.7 percent) in MVC games.
Wichita State (14-3, 4-0): The Shockers average 83.2 points and 87.5 in MVC play. Tulsa (81.9) in 1993-94 is the last MVC team to average more than 80 for a season. … WSU also leads the MVC in field goal defense by holding opponents to 37.8 percent. It ranks fifth defending the three-pointer at 32.8 percent. … Freshman G Austin Reaves is 22 of 40 (55 percent) from three-point range to lead the MVC. The MVC record is 55.8 (53 of 95) set by Evansville’s Brian Jackson in 1995. Jackson, who died in 2008, played at Heights. … The Shockers lead the series 25-9 and are 7-0 vs. Loyola since it joined the MVC in 2013.
RPI rank as of Tuesday: LU 157, WSU 92.