Before Wichita State gets to the two-month part where it is the biggest game on every team’s schedule, it must survive 12 non-conference games that coach Gregg Marshall calls the toughest accumulation of his career.
New Mexico State returns three starters and the Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year. Memphis forward Shaq Goodwin will test WSU’s big men. No. 25 Utah has guard Delon Wright, a player hyped almost as much as WSU’s guards. Seton Hall freshman guard Isaiah Whitehead is a McDonald’s All-American.
Missouri Valley Conference play starts Dec. 31 and the other nine schools can make their season by beating the Shockers. Nine coaches are ready to call it a program-defining moment and nine student groups are ready with signs and insults and dying to make “SportsCenter” when they storm the court.
“That’s what the whole Valley is thinking about,” Indiana State junior Khristian Smith said. “As a competitor, everybody wants to beat the best. They have a target on their back, and they know it.”
The Shockers are used to this, of course. Last season, WSU drew the biggest crowd of the season in eight MVC arenas, with the lone exception a Jan. 2 game at Southern Illinois with students on semester break.
The team that faces all these challenges will look similar in the backcourt to last season’s 35-1 history-making unit and dramatically different in the lane. How WSU’s big men improve and adjust will determine the success of the season. Other than senior Darius Carter and junior Evan Wessel, no forward or center has played a minute of NCAA Division I basketball. Wessel, who played more on the perimeter in past seasons, may be used more at the power forward spot in small lineups because of his experience.
Rebounding is always a high priority with Marshall. The Shockers aren’t as physically mature or as experienced as last season with the absence of Chadrack Lufile, Cleanthony Early and Kadeem Coleby. Rebounders need to step forward.
“It needs some work,” guard Ron Baker said. “We’re going to put a lot of pressure on Darius. He’s a big frame down low, so we’re going to look at him. Rashard Kelly looks like he likes to rebound.”
Carter, who averaged 7.9 points and 4.5 rebounds last season, is expected to grow into a larger role in his second season in the program.
Kelly impressed coaches early in the summer with his strength and tenacity chasing loose balls. Freshman center Rauno Nurger is a good shooter who can run the pick-and-pop game with VanVleet. Redshirt freshman Shaq Morris is a scoring talent who can contribute, if he can play through fatigue and minor aches and pains.
Center Bush Wamukota, a junior transfer, is also an active rebounder and his size is crucial. But two seasons ago, he was a reserve at an NAIA school before transferring to a junior college. The learning curve could be steep, even for an athlete with his size and skills. Comparisons to Ehimen Orukpe are incorrect, Marshall says. Wamukota is a better shooter with better hands, but less physically imposing than Orukpe and not a prolific shot-blocker. Junior transfer Tevin Glass must add strength to maximize his abilities to rebound and defend big men.
“Both those guys (Wamukota and Glass) were a little thin when they got to us,” Marshall said. “They are gaining added and needed weight and strength. Tevin can shoot the ball out to 17 feet. The biggest thing for him is strength and knowledge of the system.”
Replacing Early, drafted in the second round by the New York Knicks, poses many problems. Most games, he gave WSU the best athlete on the floor and the most confident scorer. He scored 20 or more points nine times last season, six away from home. He excelled on the road, eager to take on the challenge of facing hostile fans in a situation when some players shrink.
WSU’s backcourt returns intact and full of confidence and talent. Baker averaged 13.1 points last season and scored 20 points in the NCAA Tournament loss to Kentucky. Guard Fred VanVleet earned MVC Player of the Year honors. Wing Tekele Cotton is the MVC’s top defender and expects to grow into a larger offensive role.
“(Baker) is going to play some point,” Marshall said. “I think it’s good for him, and it’s good for us.”
Freshman Corey Henderson Jr. is charged with relieving VanVleet and Baker of some of the point guard duties. He is an excellent shooter — some would argue the best on the team — and his development at point guard is important for this season and the future. Redshirt freshman Ria’n Holland is also a good shooter and he works mainly alongside a point guard.
All times p.m. unless noted
New Mexico St.
z-Nebraska or Hawaii
at Missouri St.
at Northern Iowa
at Illinois St.
at Southern Illinois
at Indiana St.
x-at Sioux Falls, S.D.
y-at Intrust Bank Arena
a-at St. Louis