NORMAL, Ill. —When Wichita State basketball coach Gregg Marshall pondered his ponderables over the summer, he paused on two names.
David Kyles and Garrett Stutz.
Those sophomores loomed as the wild cards for the season — talented, yet unable to contribute consistently as freshmen.
Marshall knew what to expect from his other returners. If Kyles and Stutz improved, WSU could be capable of big things.
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As Missouri Valley Conference play begins tonight at Illinois State, Marshall no longer considers Kyles and Stutz unknowns. They play starters' minutes and their entrance off the bench is no cause for concern.
"Not any at all," Marshall said. "I don't even think about it."
Last season, Kyles and Stutz caused Marshall to do a lot of thinking. Kyles needed to get a little stronger and a lot more mature and open to coaching. Marshall's favorite nickname was "Cadillac" for his too-cool-to-work-hard style of play. Stutz needed to add muscle and weight to take advantage of his height and shooting skills.
"My freshman year, I didn't know how to work on the defensive end," Kyles said. "I was more like, 'I can score — look at this.' "
Both had their good moments as freshmen. Both slowly improved, sometimes in ways hidden in the weight room and classroom. As sophomores, they are a big reason why WSU is 11-1 and winners of nine straight.
Kyles averages 23.1 minutes at guard, fourth on the team. He averages 6.9 points and is second on the team with 15 steals. Once a turnover liability, Kyles is no longer casual with ball. He leads the MVC with a 3.1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
"He's grown up a lot," Marshall said.
His teammates notice it in many ways. Kyles uses his length and quickness to be a strong defender — last season he helped guard Illinois State star Osiris Eldridge in a Shocker win. Most of all, Kyles is more focused and serious about his basketball as a sophomore. Details such as foot angles, catching the ball in the right position and preparation mean something.
"Being ready to play," senior Clevin Hannah said. "Last year he wasn't ready — he wouldn't get in a three-point stance, he would just hold the ball over his head. He was loose."
Stutz, a 7-foot center, averages 9 points and 5.2 rebounds. He leads WSU with 30 offensive rebounds, matching his total in 34 games as a freshman.
"I got a lot stronger, so I don't get pushed around," he said.
A lot of gradual improvement led to a dramatic breakthrough for Stutz. He played poorly against Pittsburgh in WSU's lone loss. The next night, he scored 18 points in a win over Iowa.
"After the Pitt game, Coach talked to me about he was disappointed, that I wasn't rebounding, I wasn't scoring points, I wasn't playing defense," Stutz said. "I had to find a way to bring energy or do something positive for our team."
Marshall remembers going over the Iowa scouting report with the team. When coaches talked about taking advantage of Iowa's freshman center, Marshall mentioned that Iowa coaches were probably saying similar things about Stutz.
"The only difference is, you're not a freshman," Marshall continued.
"He didn't like that," Marshall said. "But it was true."
With that thought, Stutz scored 16 first-half points against the Hawkeyes. He dunked. He made threes. He dove on the floor, chasing a loose ball, for a memorable save to a teammate.
"He was dominant," Marshall said. "I may have had a (center) play better (for a half), but I can't recall it. It was pretty special."
Stutz kept that momentum with 13 points against Cleveland State. He grabbed a career-high 12 rebounds against Alcorn State. He scored 13 against Texas Tech, including two critical baskets late in the game.
It's a good start for both sophomores. They know things will get more difficult in MVC play. Marshall would like Kyles to improve his 65-percent accuracy from the line. Stutz expects to face more double teams and more physical defense as his reputation grows.
"That's the beauty of this group — there's still a lot they can improve on," Marshall said.