Morris Udeze was restricted to the bench, his left arm in a sling following season-ending shoulder surgery, when Wichita State basketball began its mid-season turnaround.
He had played mostly during WSU’s 8-11 start and had experienced the dark times in practice and in games. But when the Shockers rolled off 14 wins in their last 18 games and finished the season in New York City at the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament, Udeze could only support his teammates from the sideline.
Now eight months removed from the surgery, Udeze estimates he is 90% recovered. The Shockers play their lone exhibition game next Tuesday at Koch Arena against Northeastern State, then open the season a week later on Nov. 5 at Koch Arena against Omaha.
And he’s more motivated than ever to return to the court to help the Shockers.
“It was frustrating (being injured), but that’s motivated me to come back stronger,” Udeze said. “I really feel like I’m in the best shape of my life. I’ve been doing a lot of running trying to get up and down the floor faster and I’ve been working a lot on my shooting this offseason.”
Udeze averaged 3.3 points and 3.2 rebounds last season, but was playing 14.2 minutes per game as WSU’s back-up center before his shoulder started acting up. His season highlight came in WSU’s 83-80 win over Providence, as Udeze scored 10 points off the bench on 5 of 6 shooting.
But as the season progressed, Udeze’s shoulder began popping out more frequently. It caused him to miss the conference opener at Memphis and although Udeze tried to play through the pain, WSU ultimately decided to shut him down in February after tests showed too much damage had been done to the shoulder.
Udeze was cleared to return to a basketball court at the end of the summer. Shortly after, he was cleared for full contact. He feels like he will be ready for the Nov. 5 season opener.
“I feel like the recovery has been going smooth,” Udeze said. “I’m working every day with (trainer) Todd (Fagan). I’m working so hard to get back to it.”
WSU found success after Udeze’s injury at center last season rotating primarily between Jaime Echenique and Asbjorn Midtgaard with Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler sprinkled in. With all three players returning, plus Udeze finally healthy, there could be a logjam at the position for minutes.
But with Poor Bear-Chandler dropping close to 20 pounds, he’s made an attempt to make himself available to play power forward. That could open up the possibility of WSU keeping its three-man rotation at center with Echenique starting and Midtgaard and Udeze subbing in.
“We’re a three-headed monster down there,” Udeze said. “We all are good at attacking the glass and offensive rebounding hard. We go hard at each other every day and it’s making us better. Iron sharpens iron.”
While Echenique (6-foot-11) and Midtgaard (7-foot) offer WSU two giants in the paint, Udeze (6-8, 240 pounds) offers a different kind of big body. He doesn’t have the height as his other two teammates, but Udeze is armed with a 7-foot wingspan and the best motor of the bunch.
WSU coach Gregg Marshall has taken a liking to the competitiveness Udeze brings with him on the court. He doesn’t always make the right play, but Udeze always gives maximum effort and that’s a good way to earn playing time under Marshall. He has the nasty streak in him that Marshall hopes rubs off on Echenique and Midtgaard.
“It’s really just a mindset,” Udeze said. “You just have to be tenacious every single time. Every day I just keep that same mindset and keep going 100%. That’s the key for me.”
That tenacity gives Udeze the potential to be an effective post scorer. There were times last season when Udeze capitalized on a post-up on the block, drop stepping toward the rim and using his big frame to shield himself for the finish.
Udeze says he’s improved as a finisher in the paint because he has to finish over the length of Echenique and Midtgaard every day in practice. If he’s ever matched up with a defender shorter than 6-11, he says it’s a relief.
“I have to try so hard to get the ball above them because they’re shot-blockers and so much taller than me,” Udeze said. “It really makes me better going against them every day in practice.”
Samajae Haynes-Jones also found success with Udeze last season when he penetrated and collapsed the defense. Udeze would stalk the baseline and when his defender went for the block on Haynes-Jones, he made himself available for the dump-off pass and would finish with dunks.
With an infusion of talented freshmen guards, that could again be an area where Udeze excels within WSU’s offense.
But he’s also got some work do, as his limitations last season were obvious. He wasn’t a threat outside of the paint and didn’t attempt a shot further than 8 feet from the rim. The way WSU defends ball screens demands a lot out of its big men and Udeze at times had problems with his foot speed recovering to his man after hedging on screens.
Marshall did mention earlier this offseason that he was likely to redshirt a sophomore big man, meaning either Udeze or Poor Bear-Chandler. But with both reportedly having strong fall camps so far, those plans could change.
Regardless of his fate this season, Udeze attacked the areas that he wanted and dropped five pounds and worked to add a mid-range jump shot to his arsenal.
“I feel like I got better this summer, for sure,” Udeze said. “I refined my post game a little bit, but my biggest focus was shooting a lot of mid range, a lot of short corners. I know I’m good enough inside to pound it in, but whenever they do give me that shot, then I can shoot it now.”