Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet were program-changing basketball players for Wichita State. They had no weaknesses and they were tremendous leaders. They will be missed.
But hang with me here because what I’m about to write is going to sound crazy. And I’m not even 100-percent sure I believe it.
OK, here goes: The Shockers have a chance to be better this season without those two. And it’s not really the “without Ron and Fred” part of that sentence I’m emphasizing. I’m just saying that Wichita State will be more like the teams I associate Gregg Marshall being most comfortable coaching.
Lots of option, more balance, a deep bench.
The experience of Baker and VanVleet is irreplaceable. In case you haven’t noticed, both are on NBA rosters. They are two of the greatest 10 Shockers.
Better without them? Sounds nuts, doesn’t it?
So let me explain myself.
Last season, Baker shot 42.4 percent from the floor and 35 percent from the three-point line. There is nothing special about those shooting percentages.
VanVleet, meanwhile, was a 39-percent shooter and made 38.1 percent of his threes.
They combined to average 26.2 points. That’s all.
Now, their contributions went deeper than shooting and scoring. They defended, made their free throws, rebounded extremely well for guards, got into passing lanes and were at least a step ahead of their opponents most of the time.
But if the rest of the Missouri Valley Conference is licking their chops to finally play a Baker-VanVleet-less Shocker team — as they undoubtedly are — they should also be prepared for a sour taste.
Here are 10 reasons:
▪ Sophomore forward Markis McDuffie is a star. He did things as a freshman we haven’t seen in these parts for a while, he just didn’t do them consistently. He’ll be more consistent this season and reminds me some of former Shocker forward Cleanthony Early, although I think McDuffie can be a better all-around player.
▪ Replacing VanVleet’s brain at point guard won’t be easy because he’s one of the smartest players I’ve seen. But redshirt junior Conner Frankamp is pretty smart, too. And really talented. I just hope he unleashes whatever it is that has held him back so far as a college player. And we keep hearing how much better junior-college transfer Daishon Smith has gotten during practices. Smith, by all accounts, is a blur.
▪ Junior Shaq Morris is not going to foul as often. The 6-foot-8 Morris ranked first among WSU players last season with 95 fouls while playing the eighth-most minutes. Morris has to stay on the floor, ideally giving the Shockers 20-25 minutes. He can be a force. But it’s hard to be a force from the bench.
▪ Marshall rarely strikes out on a recruit. It’s pretty amazing, really, and a testament to WSU’s assistant coaches. It appears 6-foot-8 Darral Willis is going to be the next in a long line of strong frontcourt players via the junior college ranks. A frontline that includes Willis, Morris, Rashard Kelly, Eric Hamilton and Rauno Nurger can be a good one.
▪ Redshirt freshman guard Landry Shamet, limited to three games last season because of an injury, has some VanVleet in him and is four inches taller. Shamet, though, isn’t a true point guard, but can play there. He can also play shooting guard and small forward, so he’ll be a matchup problem.
▪ Every Shocker you talk to talks about 6-5 freshman Austin Reaves, who played last season at a small Arkansas high school and flew under the recruiting radar. They talk about his basketball IQ and how he loves to pass. They also mention that he can really shoot, which isn’t surprising given that he averaged more than 30 points as a high school senior. There is great curiosity about Reaves.
▪ There is some subtlety to Wichita State’s dominance over the past few seasons. Last season, for instance, the Shockers held opponents to 59 points. They also had 4.4 edge in rebounds, a 5.6 advantage in turnovers and had 2.6 more steals than opponents. WSU is an add-it-up team. And when you do, the Shockers almost always find a way to win.
▪ The rest of the Valley looks weak. At least not very strong. WSU has won three consecutive regular-season conference championships and a fourth looks inevitable. In fact, the Valley looks as if it will be owned by the Shockers for years to come, unless of course Wichita State exits. It’s not as if the rest of the conference isn’t trying. It’s that Marshall has created a program that can’t be caught, at least not by these programs.
▪ Zach Brown. We haven’t mentioned him yet because the 6-6 junior hasn’t quite put it all together. There have been flashes, though. Enough of them to make me think he’s one of the real wild cards on this team. It wouldn’t surprise me if Brown averages 12-14 points and becomes one of the Shockers’ most dangerous three-point shooters.
▪ Depth. There are a lot of potential contributors here and Marshall has proven his ability to navigate a roster with 10, 11 or even 12 worthy players. And he’s good at finding the hot hand. The Shockers are going to hit opponents from a lot of different directions. They no longer have Baker and VanVleet, but there are a bunch of players eager to show what they can do.