On Wednesday, Shaq Morris watched Wichita State’s game at Drake on TV in his apartment. He watched Drake center Jacob Enevold push the Shockers around and grab 15 rebounds.
On Saturday, Morris practiced, the sting of being told not to travel to Drake because of poor practice habits, still fresh. He worked, he ran hard and junior Ron Baker called it the best practice of Morris’ two seasons at WSU.
On Sunday, Morris played like he wanted to be a part of the team and helped the 16th-ranked Shockers defeat Illinois State 70-62 at Koch Arena. He scored nine points, all in the second half, and blocked three shots.
What happens next for Morris, a player whose motivation doesn’t match his talent, is unknown. He knows coach Gregg Marshall wants consistent effort, yet that focus eludes him despite regular and passionate requests from coaches.
“It really got to me when I didn’t go to Drake,” Morris said. “Coach told me go home and get some time to think about how bad I wanted it. When they came back from Drake, I just gave them my all.”
WSU (12-2, 2-0 Missouri Valley Conference) needs Morris’ size. At 6-foot-7 and 261 pounds, he can take up space and push back against the Valley’s biggest centers. Watching Enevold rampage through the lane in a closer-than-necessary 66-58 win drove that point home to Morris.
“It took me back to my redshirt year, when I wasn’t traveling and I was working hard,” he said. “I questioned myself, that why I did do that, why did I work so hard and then let my team down?”
Morris’ passive approach to practice changed after the Drake game. Stay tuned to see if the change sticks this time.
“If he did not practice better, you would not have seen him,” Marshall said. “He actually broke a sweat and worked pretty hard. He acted like he wanted to be there.”
On the opposite end of the want-to spectrum is junior Evan Wessel, a favorite of Marshall’s because he hustles every play and gets the maximum out of his athletic ability. On Sunday, Wessel returned to the starting lineup, after missing most of four games with a sprained right ankle, and continued to do his grit-and-grind thing. He scored three points, handed out four assists, grabbed three rebounds and grabbed three steals.
“It’s nice to have another guy out there that’s hustling,” Baker said. “Any time Evan has good energy, the team has good energy.”
Last season’s Shockers could survive on talent and size, although they almost always added hustle and desire. This season’s team needs Morris, Wessel and everybody playing at max effort. As Sunday showed again, nothing is coming easy for the Shockers. WSU was out-rebounded for the second straight game, 32-27. Illinois State (8-6, 0-2) matched WSU’s aggressiveness and size and stayed close with 15 second-chance points to WSU’s three.
“We competed at a high level,” Redbirds coach Dan Muller said. “Our rebounding effort was terrific. But to win, and to beat Wichita State, you’ve got to play a little bit better than we did.”
Drake out-rebounded WSU 38-29 and grabbed 12 offensive rebounds. Illinois State totaled 14 offensive rebounds, seven more than WSU. The Redbirds scored nine of their first 11 points in the second half on follow shots, cutting WSU’s 32-23 lead to 38-36.
“I don’t like that,” Marshall said. “That’s not who I am.”
The Shockers finally wore down the Redbirds in the final minutes. Fred VanVleet’s three-pointer put the Shockers up 60-55. Morris’ basket, after he blocked a shot, made it 62-55 with 2:49 remaining. VanVleet made two free throws with 1:30 to play for a 64-56 edge and the Shockers survived.
"VanVleet’s always made big shots," Muller said. "Every team knows it. He’s a special player in that way. He’s got a pretty unique gene."
Baker led WSU with 15 points. Carter added 14 for WSU, which shot 52 percent from the field. Daishon Knight led the Redbirds with 22 points.
Wessel’s return and Carter’s return to the lane revitalized the Shockers in the first half. Carter abandoned his jump shot and worked to post up in the lane. The guards got him the ball frequently, especially in the opening minutes, and he scored six points and recorded an assist.
Wessel started and his hustle paid off. He made a three-point, grabbed two offensive rebounds and two steals in the first half.
WSU led by seven points five times in the first half. It led 16-9 and 18-11 before giving up points on Illinois State’s next possession. Up 20-13 after a basket by VanVleet, back-to-back turnovers helped the Redbirds cut the lead to 20-16. Tekele Cotton’s free throws gave WSU a 25-18 lead and the Shockers missed a chance to extend the lead with a turnover by Baker. Daishon Knight’s basket cut the gap to 25-20.