VIDEO: Wichita State's Ron Baker on returning to college, newcomer Anton Grady
ST. LOUIS – Nobody mentioned Houston. Nobody needed to. Wichita State’s men’s basketball team showed up at media day to collect its three-peat as Missouri Valley Conference preseason favorite, a forgone conclusion in April when its coach and top players elected to remain Shockers.
Winning the MVC for a third straight season is one goal. It is one of many and when your resume includes the 2013 Final Four, a No. 1 seed in 2014 and a Sweet 16 in 2015, a trip to Houston in April for the Final Four is on the table.
“To take the next step, I don’t think we need to put any more pressure on than needed,” senior guard Ron Baker said. “Just go out and have fun. If you look at it as a positive, and just focus in on doing the right thing and having fun with it, I think good things will come out of it.”
Coach Gregg Marshall understands his biggest challenge is to “live up to expectations, which are probably a little out of whack,” he said. “But that’s what you’ve got to do.”
The Shockers, two-time defending MVC champions, grabbed 42 of a possible 43 first-place votes and 429 points in Tuesday’s poll. Second-place Evansville received 350 points. Loyola, picked fifth, received the remaining first-place vote.
“That’s crazy,” Loyola coach Porter Moser. “I’m a coaching veteran, not a rookie. The last thing I would do is vote for us No. 1 in a league this senior-dominated and with those guards in black and gold.”
WSU’s women’s team, three-time defending champions, is picked fifth. Missouri State is the women’s favorite with 22 first-place votes and 373 points, followed by Drake with 15 first-place votes and 347 points. Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois and WSU also received first-place votes.
WSU guard Fred VanVleet joined Baker, Evansville guard D.J. Balentine and center Egidijius Mockevicius and Illinois State forward DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell on the All-MVC team. VanVleet, the MVC’s 2014 Larry Bird Player of the Year, was named preseason Player of the Year. He did not attend media day due to illness.
Marshall took a look at Alabama’s open coaching job. Baker and VanVleet evaluated their NBA options. All three returned, which made it an easy choice for the four voters representing each school — coach, two media members, media-relations person — to vote WSU. It is the first MVC team to earn the top spot three straight times in the preseason poll since voting started before the 1985-86 season.
“I felt the decision I had to make last year was a win-win for me,” Baker said. “Passing up your senior year in college is something I think I might have regretted down the line.”
Baker described the decision as 75 percent coming from himself and his family, and 25 percent from what Marshall and VanVleet decided to do. Marshall turned away Alabama’s aggressive pursuit in early April. The players announced their decision in mid-April.
Marshall told them to make the decision that worked best for them. If they departed, he could take pride in putting more players in the NBA. Since they stayed, he gets one more season to coach two transformational players in one more run at national glory.
“I’m really trying to appreciate it,” Marshall said. “I’m trying to take mental picture. I’m trying to relish it. It doesn’t take much to coach them. They were coached before I got them. Every once in awhile I’ll jab them a little bit, just so the other guys see it or hear it, but that’s even work.”
Before the Shockers can lock in on postseason goals, Marshall wants to get his roster healthy. Six players sat out last week’s Shocker Madness scrimmage with a variety of ailments. Marshall said all six practiced on Monday. The injuries ranged from VanVleet’s sprained right ankle to Zach Brown’s sore hip to Anton Grady’s knees to Bush Wamukota’s back. Marshall described Shaq Morris’ ailments as numerous, including knee and finger issues.
“One of them is an All-American guard, when you take him out of the equation, it certainly doesn’t help practice,” Marshall said. “It diminishes the overall effectiveness of the practice.”
It is no coincidence that the injuries are hitting the big men. Freshman Eric Hamilton, an aggressive, bouncy forward, is often seems to be involved in crashing and falling bodies.
“Eric Hamilton is a little reckless,” Marshall said. “He hurts a lot of people.”
PRESEASON MVC BASKETBALL
1. Wichita State (42 1sts) 429
2. Evansville 350
3. Northern Iowa 336
4. Illinois State 323
5. Loyola (1) 267
6. Indiana State 218
7. Drake 165
8. Missouri State 127
9. Southern Illinois 101
10. Bradley 49
Preseason All-MVC: Ron Baker, WSU; Fred VanVleet, WSU; D.J. Balentine, Evansville; DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, Illinois State; Egidijius Mockevicius, Evansville. Player of the year: VanVleet.
Honorable mention: G Milton Doyle, Loyola; G Wes Washpun, Northern Iowa; G Anthony Beane, Southern Illinois; G Devonte Brown, Indiana State.
1. Missouri State (22 1sts) 373
2. Drake (15) 347
3. Northern Iowa (1) 320
4. Southern Illinois (1) 297
5. Wichita State (1) 214
6. Evansville 182
7. Indiana State 151
8. Loyola 142
9. Bradley 126
10. Illinois State 48
Preseason All-MVC: Sara Dickey, Evansville; Kenzie Williams, Missouri State; Taylor Manuel, Loyola; Dyana Pierre, Southern Illinois; Lizzy Wendell, Drake. Player of the year: Wendell.