It took 11 games for Wichita State newcomers to be needed in a significant way, not merely to fill a few minutes and avoid making mistakes.
On Tuesday, they needed to make plays during the guts of a game, on the road, against a worthy opponent chasing a landmark win. The newcomers heard that message — you will be needed — starting in October. Tuesday was that game and the WSU freshmen came up big in an 80-79 overtime win over Hawaii.
No. 11 WSU (10-1) plays George Washington (8-3) on Thursday in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic. On Wednesday, coach Gregg Marshall stopped practice to ask his players how much better it felt to work out after a victory than with the stink of defeat.
It felt a lot better, thanks to contributions from the freshmen. Forward Rashard Kelly made the game-winning shot after rebounding a miss. Forward Zach Brown continued his rapid ascendance with nine points. Center Rauno Nurger made 5 of 7 free throws and blocked a shot in the second half.
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“We don’t win that game without, the obvious, Rashard Kelly’s putback,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “Brown’s contribution in the first half. Rauno’s contribution in the second half.”
WSU’s newcomers contributed in previous games. The bench scored 38 points in Monday’s win over Loyola Marymount. Tuesday, however, the Shockers needed a boost in a more desperate way than in the past. Foul trouble sidelined center Darius Carter. Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton combined to shoot 4 for 19 from three-point range.
A month ago, WSU’s newcomers weren’t prepared to step into bigger roles. On Tuesday, they did. Brown made two first-half three-pointers after eight misses by other Shockers. Nurger’s foul shots helped WSU rally from a seven-point deficit in the second half. Kelly made 5 of 6 shots, scored 12 points and grabbed six rebounds. Freshman center Shaq Morris played only five minutes, but scored four points.
“They all came up big at different times,” VanVleet said. “You never know when it’s going to be their time. You’ve got to stay ready.”
Marshall cranked out a series of game-ready newcomers on previous rosters, most of them transfers. Players such as Carl Hall, Malcolm Armstead, Clevin Hannah, Gabe Blair and Cleanthony Early contributed immediately. This group, more reliant on freshmen, is taking longer to develop.
That is normal. Special players such as Toure Murry and Ron Baker skip past many of the growing pains as freshmen. Most don’t.
“It’s different for every player,” Marshall said. “Some of them have one issue and some of them have another. With some of them, it might be strength and physicality and quickness and speed. Some of them, it might be knowledge of the system.”
WSU transfers — center Bush Wamukota and forward Tevin Glass — are coming along more slowly. Wamukota gave WSU 13 good minutes, a season-high, against Loyola Marymount and scored five points with five rebounds. Glass played in four games and did not play against Hawaii.
“We’ve got some veterans, and we’ve got some young ones that are coming on,” Marshall said. “The thing that excites me is, we can get better. Freshmen, as time goes on, generally improve and their upward trend for improvement is greater. These guys can get better, so we as a team can get better.”
With this group, Marshall carefully substitutes to put his newcomers in good positions because they are not as well-rounded as a more experienced player. If he needs a rebounder, he calls on Kelly. Nurger can give him a good shooter, as he proved with 15 points against Saint Louis. Against Seton Hall, Nurger barely played because Marshall didn’t like the matchup against a more athletic team. Can Corey Henderson Jr. run a team and handle defensive pressure at point guard? He is improving and pushing Ria’n Holland for playing time.
“I have to really sit there and think about which one of these guys needs to go in,” Marshall said. “You have to play both ends, and there’s ball-handling and all those things in between. Brown, by virtue of the last two games, probably now is in the conversation to be the first perimeter (player) off the bench.”
Brown’s rise on the depth chart appears dramatic in Hawaii. He did not play against Detroit or Alabama. In the Diamond Head Classic, he played well in consecutive games. His improvement played out gradually in practice as he improved his defense, his ability to stay in a defensive stance and his ball-handling. His versatility is appealing because he is big enough to guard backcourt players and some forwards.
“I’ve been working on the little things,” he said. “Keeping the ball low. Not turning the ball over. Now I’m working on being able to fake and make passes, not getting my passes taken away by throwing across my body.”
Eleven games in, WSU’s newcomers are almost done with their non-conference crash course in college basketball. Road games. Overtime. Ranked opponents. Rallies. Travel delays and bonding on a long trip. With Missouri Valley Conference play beginning on Dec. 31 at Drake, the newcomers appear closer to being ready when called upon.
“They’re going to need us,” guard Corey Henderson said. “They say it all the time, that we’re not new anymore, we’re not freshmen anymore, it’s time to grow up. It’s good to get out there and get an opportunity to work on things and get better, especially on defense.”
No. 11 Wichita State vs. George Washington
When: About 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Sheriff Center, Honolulu
Records: WSU 10-1, GW 8-3
Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM
No. 11 Wichita St. vs. George Washington
Wichita State: Junior F Evan Wessel continued to do stretching and light exercises on Wednesday to rehab his sprained right ankle. He will not play Thursday. WSU’s next game is Dec. 31 at Drake. “We’ve got a week (until Drake), so maybe,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “(Thursday) is a no, that’s a maybe.” … George Washington often switches between man and zone defenses and is holding opponents to 39.4 percent shooting and 27.5 percent from three-point range. “They’re very tough, very physical,” Marshall said. “They’ve got some big players who can really get to the rim.” … The Shockers are trying to win their third consecutive holiday tournament, joining the 2012 Cancun Challenge and the 2013 CBE Classic. WSU has won six straight in-season tournament games. Before Cancun, WSU last won an in-season tournament away from home in 1963 in the All-College Tournament in Oklahoma City … VanVleet added 12 assists to his career total in Hawaii, pushing him to 341 and into eighth place on WSU’s list. Paul Guffrovich (1987-91) is seventh with 383.
GW: The Colonials held Colorado to 1-of-12 shooting from three-point range and 36.5-percent from the field in Tuesday’s 53-50 win. “We played 1-3-1 (zone) a lot longer than we played it this year, but it kept them away from the basket,” coach Mike Lonergan said. “That really made them shoot from the outside … McDonald played 38 minutes and scored 14 points against the Buffaloes … “We want to take that next step,” Lonergan said. “I came here six years ago with Vermont and we made it to the semis. Last year, we went to the Wooden Legacy and beat Miami, lost to Marquette, beat Creighton.” … GW shoots 29.5 percent from three-point range. F Yuta Watanbe has made 10 of 26 (38.5 percent) off the bench. GW’s starters are a combined 19 for 77 (24.6 percent) from behind the arc.