Wichita State sophomore basketball player Rashard Kelly is looking through his texts after a recent game, happy and knowing he can count on a message from his biggest fan.
“The text I’m looking for is from my mom, telling me ‘good game,’ ” he said. “Seeing that she’s proud of me after every game, makes me smile. That’s who I talk to before the game and after the game; everybody else doesn’t really matter.”
Before every game, Tammy Kelly tells her son to have fun and play wild — “Have energy,” Rashard Kelly said.
On Thursday, Kelly and fellow sophomores Zach Brown and Shaq Morris all played with plenty of energy and plenty of smarts. If Wichita State is to finish this season strong, it will need its sophomores, including guard Conner Frankamp, to give more assistance to the seniors.
Losses to Illinois State and Northern Iowa made that clear as the defeats sunk WSU’s NCAA Tournament at-large resume into distress. Defenses will surround Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet and make other Shockers beat them.
“I owe it to the older guys to do whatever I can on both sides of the floor,” Brown said. “We already know that they’re going to come out and do what they need to do. It’s time for all the underclassmen, like me and Rashard and Shaq, to step up.”
Each of them can give the Shockers a specific boost when they’re playing well.
Brown scored a career-high 16 points Thursday after scoring 11 against New Mexico State on Monday. Against UNI, he tied a career-high with eight rebounds. In those three games he is 14 of 25 from the field. In the right situations, he can provide a driving threat that diversifies the offense.
“He’s more assertive, but he’s not out of control,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “You want him to take wide-open shots. You want him to slash to the basket, any time it’s there. He can really get up there and finish down on the rim.”
Kelly made 5 of 7 shots on Thursday to score a career-high 12 points, benefiting from MSU’s turnover problems to snag easy baskets. He also handed out a career-high four assists. Morris played 17 minutes without committing a foul and set his career-high with eight rebounds.
“To play without fouling is tremendous for him,” Marshall said. “It’s good to see them aggressive. The sophomores, Brown and Kelly are starting to play some of their best basketball, Shaq’s been pretty good for awhile now and Conner’s coming along. It’s not just the seniors. That sophomore class is now showing that they’re playing some pretty good basketball.”
Strong in Pomeroy — The losses to Illinois State and Northern Iowa dropped the Shockers in most NCAA Tournament bracket projections. They are seen by many as a borderline team that needs to win the automatic bid.
Not everybody is in that camp.
Ken Pomeroy’s statistical rankings treat the Shockers well, ranking them No. 14 nationally. While that doesn’t mean the NCAA selection committee will agree, Pomeroy said in an email that it would be unprecedented for a team he has ranked that highly not to play in the NCAA Tournament.
In the past five seasons, Iowa at No. 27 in 2013 is the highest-ranked team not to make the NCAAs.
Willis doubles up — Pearl River (Miss.) Community College is the top seed in its state tournament that begins Monday. Darral Willis, who signed with WSU in November, averages 18 points and 10 rebounds.
Willis, a 6-foot-8 sophomore forward, totaled 14 double-doubles in the regular season, seven in the final eight games.
Pearl River (16-7) plays East Mississippi at 3 p.m. Monday.
Pearl River has already qualified for the Region 23 Tournament, which begins March 2 and will determine which team comes to Hutchinson for the NJCAA Tournament. The Wildcats lost in the championship game last season.
Worth noting — WSU’s men’s track and field team is No. 12 in the Collegiate Dual Meet Rankings, the final ones of the indoor season, compiled by Track and Field News. The women’s team finished No. 17. In the coaches association rankings, the men are No. 9 in the Midwest region and the women are No. 12.… Marshall is in the third round of voting for the Infiniti Coaches Charity Challenge. Fans can vote for him at espn.com/infiniti.