Ten observations from Wichita State basketball media day Monday at Koch Arena:
1) It’s strange to see Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet still in Shocker uniforms. It feels like they’ve been Wichita State players since the turn of the century. The 19th century. And if it feels that way to me, what must it feel like to the coaches and players around the Missouri Valley Conference? The good news for them is that Baker and VanVleet are finally seniors. This is their final season as Shockers, I can almost guarantee it. The bad news is that Baker and VanVleet returned for their senior seasons with one purpose in mind and that’s to make a strong, deep run in the NCAA Tournament. In other words, they didn’t come back to win the Valley. No offense to the Valley. Baker and VanVleet, of course, are outstanding players. But they’re even better leaders and while the Shockers will have a lot of inexperience on the floor this season, it’s talented inexperience. And that’s the best inexperience to have.
2) Departed seniors Tekele Cotton and Darius Carter will be missed. They combined to average 21.2 points and 9.3 rebounds in 2014-15 and Cotton is one of the best defenders in Shocker history. It says a lot about the WSU program and the recruiting done by this coaching staff, though, that the Shockers might not skip a beat. They might be better. Even significantly better, if that’s even possible. Sophomores Zach Brown, Rashard Kelly and Shaq Morris should all take a big step forward. Brown, according to WSU coach Gregg Marshall, is the heir apparent to Cotton as potentially the team’s best perimeter defender. And Brown is 6-foot-6. The 6-7 Kelly and the 6-8 Morris have continued to improve and Morris in particular looks to be in the best shape of his life.
3) Conner Frankamp is motivated and happy. The KU transfer has not played in a game since the 2014 NCAA Tournament. It will have been nearly 21 months since he last played when he finally steps on the floor for the Shockers’ Dec. 12 game against Utah at Intrust Bank Arena. Frankamp told me Monday he’s grateful to Marshall for making him a better defensive player and realizes he still has work to do. Marshall has called Frankamp the best shooter he’s been around in his many years of coaching. I continue to believe the Frankamp/Shocker marriage will be beneficial to both parties.
4) There will be roles for freshmen on this team. Marshall is extremely high on his freshmen class and look for at least two, guard Landry Shamet and forward Markis McDuffie, to play key roles. Shamet can play the point, although he’s probably better suited to play shooting guard or small forward. His versatility and basketball IQ are his greatest strengths. McDuffie is, by all accounts, a Cleanthony Early-type athlete.
5) What happens after VanVleet and Baker leave? It’s an interesting question and one that will be asked a lot this season. Let’s just say the cupboard will not be bare. Marshall is driven by a lot of factors, and he’s definitely intent on showing that Shocker basketball can still be highly successful even after the departure of two iconic players. WSU is recruiting at its highest level in years and there will still be outstanding talent in 2016-17. It’s still unsure who fills out this season’s starting lineup, but let’s play with next season, shall we?. PG: Frankamp; SG: Shamet; SF: Brown; PF: Kelly; C: Morris. That leaves McDuffie, Eric Hamilton, Ty Taylor and Rauno Nurger coming off the bench, along with a strong group of newcomers. Shocker basketball isn’t going away when VanVleet and Baker depart.
6) Evan Wessel is a big part of this. When somebody mentions Baker and VanVleet to Marshall, he makes sure to tack on Wessel as part of a three-headed senior monster. Marshall loves the 6-4 Wessel’s toughness and intensity and says his contribution goes far beyond the 4.2 points and 3.7 rebounds he averaged last season. The rest of the Shockers know it, too. Wessel is an anchor for the Shockers. He sets a tone of playing the way Marshall wants his guys to play.
7) Look for 6-11 Bush Wamukota to play significant minutes this season. He’s currently struggling with some back issues, but Wamukota has the size and athleticism to be a difference maker defensively. And if he’ll settle down offensively instead of trying to do too much, Marshall said, he can be a factor there, too.
8) Senior Anton Grady, a transfer from Cleveland State, might be the perfect last piece of the puzzle for the Shockers. He averaged 14.2 points and 7.9 rebounds last season and gives the Shockers interior experience. Finding him late in the process was a brilliant move by the Shockers’ coaches. It’s conceivable that five seniors — VanVleet, Baker, Wessel, Grady, Wamukota — could start for WSU in its season opener against Charleston Southern on Nov. 13.
9) Two seasons ago, I made an early prediction about the Shockers going unbeaten through the regular season. By golly, it happened. And get this: It could happen again this season, although I’m not necessarily going to predict that happening. WSU has a more demanding schedule that includes road games against Tulsa, Saint Louis and Seton Hall and there’s a tough field in the Advocare Invitational in Orlando that includes first-round opponent Southern California, either Alabama or Xavier in the second round and potentially Notre Dame in the championship. But would it absolutely shock me if the Shocks were unbeaten going into the NCAA Tournament? I can’t say it would, which sounds blatantly ridiculous. Except that it happened two years ago. Crazy.
10) This is an incredible time for Shocker basketball. Fans, you’re lucky. Baker and VanVleet are determined to go out on a high note and accomplish something the Shockers have never accomplished. I think you know what that means.
Thanks for reading.