There are no magic American Athletic Conference drills, no special motivational tactics held back because the Missouri Valley Conference didn’t offer a challenge in many games.
Wichita State is in the early stages of its summer workouts and the routine is similar to past summers. The buzz from joining a new conference is months away, even if fans are excited about playing Cincinnati, Tulsa and Connecticut next season.
“We watch college basketball; we know what the AAC is about,” WSU junior Markis McDuffie said. “We’re just getting better ourselves. Get bigger. Get stronger.”
The setting for Shocker basketball is certainly different this summer.
A year ago, a largely unproven team pushed itself through summer workouts to prepare for an exhibition trip to Canada. Nobody knew how the departure of a senior class that included NBA players Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet would alter the team’s trajectory.
A year later, the Shockers are in a new conference and talk of a deep NCAA Tournament run seems entirely appropriate.
ESPN.com’s 2018 NCAA bracket projection slots Wichita State as a No. 3 seed. Summer rankings love the Shockers — No. 6 at ESPN.com, No. 4 at CBSSports.com, No. 2 at San Jose Mercury News and No. 9 at Sports Illustrated. A team that returns its top eight scorers after going 31-5 and losing 65-62 to Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament cannot come out of the background.
“The grind is different, just knowing how good we can be,” McDuffie said. “There’s higher expectations.”
When the Shockers gather in groups of three and four to practice with coaches, the thought is that what worked in the past will work in the future. It’s done with the knowledge that shooting over 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall of Central Florida is tougher than shooting over 6-foot-7 Obediah Church at Missouri State. It’s done with knowledge that the athletes in the American are an inch or three bigger and 15 pounds heavier than most in the MVC.
For now, most of those thoughts are saved for scouting reports to come in the winter. While coaches could look at video of American opponents this summer, most of their time is devoted to recruiting and working with the current Shockers.
“This has nothing to do with who we’re playing,” coach Gregg Marshall said. “This is about trying to get us better.”
The Shockers fill their days with those workouts and strength and conditioning sessions in the Koch Arena weight room.
The basketball workouts are largely focused on offensive skills, pounding two basketballs at once, working on a pump-fake, two-dribble, jump shot. New assistant coach Donnie Jones uses a dribble-drive move he calls his “Steve Nash” drill and a length-of-the-court layup drill he names for Derrick Rose. Speed is emphasized, because the skills that helped a Shocker beat an Evansville defender will be challenged by a better class of athlete.
Away from Koch Arena is where the hype about the new conference becomes more present. It is the first topic when WSU sophomore Landry Shamet meets a fan. When he thinks about the American, he thinks about a packed Koch Arena in January. The average 19-point blowout in the MVC did not test the lungs and passion of Shocker fans.
“Everybody that says something to me, it’s always ‘We’re so excited, how do you feel about the new conference?’ ” Shamet said. “I think the energy here in Koch is going to be a lot different. More intense games means more intense fans.”
Sophomore guard Austin Reaves is healing on schedule from April surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. The shoulder dislocated three times during the 2016-17 school year, sidelining him for various amounts of time. Marshall said it is too early to consider an option to redshirt Reaves, who also missed most of last summer after surgery on his left shoulder in March 2016.
“It’s coming along well,” Marshall said. “He’s working to rehab it … every day. He’s doing some lower-body lifting, doing some stretching.”
New faces on hold — Newcomers Samajae Haynes-Jones and Asbjorn Midtgaard are not yet eligible to work out with the Shockers.
Marshall said he expects both to join the team later this summer, although he is unsure of the timetable.
“Both of them are working to finish up some academic stuff,” Marshall said.
Haynes-Jones is a guard from Wichita who attended Hutchinson Community College and will be a junior. Midtgaard, a center from Denmark, will be a freshman at WSU.