If you spent the fall building lofty projections for Wichita State's basketball team, you counted on center Garrett Stutz playing like he did last spring.
Stutz, a junior, might be getting there after a slow start caused in part by personal reasons, he said.
"I can't go into too much detail, but it's been a rough time for me," Stutz said. "I hope I'm out of it."
Stutz's recent performances, especially Tuesday's 20-point game against Tulsa, are a hopeful sign. He ended his sophomore season as a consistent double-figure scorer and earned a spot on the Missouri Valley Conference all-tournament team. His continued improvement appeared to be one reason to pick the Shockers as the conference favorite.
It hasn't worked out like that — yet. With Stutz performing as an adequate backup center, the Shockers are talented enough to win a lot of games. He is capable of much more, and the Shockers need him playing at peak levels to fulfill all those preseason expectations.
Early in 2009, Stutz averaged 13.7 points and made 22 of 35 shots in a four-game stretch. He closed last season by scoring in double figures in seven of WSU's final 10 games. During that stretch, he averaged 11.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and made 51.4 percent of his shots. He earned Missouri Valley Conference all-tournament honors in March.
"That's what I'm trying to get back to," he said.
Stutz recalled those good times with Tuesday's effort at Intrust Bank Arena. He posted up strong, demanded the ball and went aggressively to the basket against Tulsa defenders. With his three-point stroke on recent display, he used it to set up a pump fake and drive to the basket, an asset absent earlier this season. He converted two three-point plays and went 10 of 12 from the free-throw line. He beat defenders to spots near the basket. That positioning forced the Hurricane to foul or give up easy baskets.
"Watching them on film helped me realize when I needed to start posting up, instead of the time I was doing it," Stutz said. "I was trying to do my work as early as I could."
Stutz received help with his recent problems, and he wants those people to know he appreciates their time and good words. He found strength in prayers and encouragement from others.
"They helped me with a lot of things," Stutz said. "I had a real rough time for a couple weeks. The right people are trying to help pull me out of it."
When the WSU coaches noticed he wasn't acting like himself, a heart-to-heart talk lightened his burden. Teammates did their part.
"We're a really close locker room," senior Aaron Ellis said. "When someone's down, we try to pick them up and be there for them. I've had some of the guys over for dinner, just taking the extra step."
Stutz enters the holiday break on the kind of roll that made his sophomore season enticing. He built up to Tuesday's breakout with steady improvement. He is 15 of 23 from the field, averaging 11.5 points, in his past four games.
"It's great," Ellis said. "He's working hard every day in practice. He's really vocal in practice, and he brings the best out in you."
Last Saturday, Stutz scored 12 points in a 70-69 win over LSU and made the game-winning three-pointer. WSU coach Gregg Marshall, who calls Stutz one of his favorite players, got emotional in post-game interviews.
"I was praying when that ball was in the air, we all were obviously, for something good to happen to him," he said. "Garrett's been struggling."
Those struggles may be receding, if Tuesday's game is any indication. WSU can prepare for Missouri Valley Conference play, beginning Wednesday against Evansville at Koch Arena, with Stutz as more than just a solid backup center.