When I wrote in November that the 2016-17 Wichita State basketball team had a chance to be better than the 2015-16 version, guys in white coats approached. I ducked into a stairwell.
The Shockers lost them from last year’s team, which won another Missouri Valley Conference regular-season championship, squeaked into the NCAA Tournament and made a run at another Sweet 16 before falling short.
Most programs the size of Wichita State never attract players with the abilities of Baker and VanVleet. And when they lose those kind of players, at the same time no less, they circle the drain.
Wichita State is different. The Shockers have Gregg Marshall, for starters. And if there’s a more reliable winner in college basketball who isn’t working at a blueblood program, I don’t know who it would be other than Gonzaga’s Mark Few.
This season’s team has come together. There were hiccups in November and the Shockers were embarrassed by Oklahoma State at Intrust Bank Arena in December. But you don’t sneeze at 30-4, even in a conference as weak as the Valley.
That’s not Wichita State’s fault, by the way. You play in the conference that brung you, or something like that. And the way the Shockers breezed through the Valley tournament the past weekend in St. Louis makes me wonder, again, how anyone could ever even imagine the NCAA Tournament without them. Or without Marshall.
This particular Wichita State team has been more fun than anyone could have imagined. The Shockers have dominated most of their opponents and will go down as one of the best shooting teams in WSU history.
Landry Shamet and Conner Frankamp, the guards who replaced Ron and Fred, have developed into one of the best duos WSU has had, especially over the past month.
Shamet started the season as WSU’s shooting guard and Frankamp played the point. Then junior Daishon Smith replaced Frankamp. Then freshman Austin Reaves started getting more minutes.
Finally, though, it was Shamet’s move to the point and Frankamp’s move to play off the ball that really sparked this team.
In Wichita State’s past 12 games, Shamet is shooting 53.7 overall and 54.5 percent from the three-point line. Frankamp has been even better. During the Shockers’ 15-game winning streak he’s shooting 57.9 percent overall and 55.3 percent from the three-point line.
Not to mention Shaq Morris’s development as a really good post player and rebounder. Or Zach Brown’s continued refinement as the team’s best lock-down defender. Or Rashard Kelly’s evolution in becoming the Evan Wessel/Graham Hatch dirtiest working son of a gun on the team.
Darral Willis can be an effective low-post scorer with his sneaky left-handed moves. Rauno Nurger has refined his post moves, too.
When Kelly talked about this season’s team recently, he mentioned that with Baker and VanVleet around there was a little bit of a subservient attitude among the rest of the Shockers, whom he compared to background dancers.
There is no hesitation this season. The Shockers, collectively and individually, have come into their own.
There are several reasons for this team’s growing popularity, that rivals even the Ron and Fred years.
1. All of the key players will be returning next season. How good will Shamet and Frankamp be next season? The imagination runs wild. What about Morris and the others? Sophomore forward Markis McDuffie is already an All-Valley player and it feels like he’s just figuring out how good he can be. McDuffie has a knack for being in the middle of everything and if he can refine his ballhandling we’re talking about a potential All-America candidate. In fact, even in the excitement of this postseason it’s difficult for Shocker fans not to want to peek ahead to next season.
2. There is a growing sentiment, although nothing even close to official, that the Shockers’ days in the Valley could be coming to an end soon. I think that generally has folks in a good mood, too. Wichita State clearly has outgrown its conference in resources and success, and while football remains part of the discussion, I think the conference move has become the most critical move for WSU.
3. The Shockers’ success is always just a little sweeter when a local player is involved, right? Frankamp set the City League career scoring record at North and survived a difficult season at Kansas and some trying times at Wichita State before becoming the player so many thought he could be. There was tremendous pressure on Frankamp to perform and it was getting to him. But he seems to be past that now and his 9.2 points are the most by a Wichita player for the Shockers since Collegiate’s Maurice Evans averaged 22.6 in 1998-99.
4. Wichita State is scoring more points, 82 per game, than it has in 34 years. And it’s doing so without anyone averaging more than 11.8 points (McDuffie). This could become only the 10th team in Shocker history to average 80 or more points and the defense is still almost as strong as it has ever been, although the Shockers’ three-year streak of holding opponents below 60 points per game will end.
5. Basketball fun is becoming habitual. The Shockers are in the NCAA Tournament for the sixth year in a row after making eight total appearances before 2011-12. Wichita State has won 25, 29, 27, 30, 35, 30, 25 and now 30 games the past eight seasons. Fans never experienced anything like this before. This is not a ride anyone wants to jump off. And so far, Marshall and his players have kept it going, an endless carousel during an all-day trip to an amusement park.