It’s a good thing that Gregg Marshall’s sheaves were bound and stacked tight against the weather, because the early portion of this 2015-16 season has brought storm, hail and frost for the Wichita State Shockers. Despite entering the season with Final Four aspirations, Wichita State opened the year with a ghastly 2-4 record. Expectations were tempered following that stretch, but they are rising once again as the Shockers stride into conference play. With half an eye on the postseason already, this team’s goals of a conference championship and deep run in March remain unshaken.
This is a veteran team, and Marshall’s steady presence kept things from spiraling out of control when the Shockers endured that shaky start. Now that the senior guard duo of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker are back together and humming, though, the Shockers are ready to get back down to dominating all comers.
Dealing with rotation attrition had been the theme during the first third of this season for Wichita State. Of the top eight scorers in Marshall’s rotation, just two (Baker and forward Zach Brown) have played in every game. In fact, just four players on the entire Shockers roster have been healthy participants in every game the team has played. Marshall’s squad may have been able to overcome all those injuries had Fred VanVleet not been one of the missing.
Alas, VanVleet – a player predicted by some to have an All American senior season – was shelved early with nagging ankle and hamstring injuries and ended up missing four key games. Three of those games comprised Wichita State’s participation in the Advocare Invitational Tournament in Florida. The Shockers were without the services of VanVleet, highly-touted freshman guard Landry Shamet and key transfer guard Conner Frankamp. The Shockers lost all three games. To make matters frighteningly worse, near the conclusion of the team’s loss against Alabama, senior center Anton Grady collided with a Tide player, landed awkwardly, and eventually had to be carted off the floor. Fortunately, Grady’s injury was not as severe as it had initially appeared, and the big man is now one of many Shockers who have returned to game action.
While Shamet may be lost for the season due to surgery on a stress fracture in his left foot, VanVleet is back, Grady is playing his way back into form, Frankamp is coming off the bench to add scoring punch and the freshmen are benefiting from the minutes they’ve been forced to play. Marshall had hoped to redshirt sophomore post player Rauno Nurger, but with injuries to Grady and sophomore pivot Shaquille Morris, the coach had no choice but to bring Nurger back onto the court.
Healthy and whole (or as close to it as can be) these Shockers will be considered a serious threat to any teams which face them in March. There is work still to be done, however, if Wichita State is going to make serious noise in the postseason yet again. And since the beginning of Missouri Valley conference play, the Shockers are showing signs that not only are they getting healthy: they are starting to click and stifle opponents with the superior depth and versatility which had them in the national Top 10 in three months ago.
Baker can do it all, and yet he can’t do it all by himself. When the Shockers played Iowa, USC & Alabama in Florida, Baker had virtually no proven backcourt help. Freshman Ty Taylor II played 60 minutes beside Baker in those three games, but Taylor wasn’t expected to be ready for the spotlight in his first season and it showed when he was forced into major action. Taylor shot just 7 for 33 (21%) from the field. Baker fared little better, making just 14 of 41 (34%) from the field while facing down waves of opposing defenders focused single-mindedly on stopping him.
Since Frankamp and VanVleet have been inserted into the lineup, however, Baker is knocking his shots down at a 46% clip (including 39% from deep), and the Shockers are scoring 77.2 points per game. The team had scored just 190 points combined in their three losses in Florida.
Having Grady back is a huge aid to the Shocker frontcourt, as his veteran presence on the glass and as a primary option to finish around the basket compliments Marshall’s guards well. Assuming he is healthy going forward, Wichita State has a pillar to hold things up in the paint. Ideally, Shaq Morris would be complimenting Grady with his quickness and soft touch around the rim. However, Morris hasn’t made significant progress yet in his sophomore season and it’s been a disappointment to Marshall and Shocker fans alike. There have been turnovers and mental mistakes. Morris picked up four fouls in just 12 minutes played in a loss at Tulsa, and has seen his minutes limited in the Shockers’ close games against Evansville, Seton Hall and UNLV.
There have been flashes of tremendous play – Morris scored 12 against both Nevada and Saint Louis, and did so on a combined 11 of 12 (92%) shooting from the floor. With Nurger still unable to bring an every-game physical presence, senior 7-footer Bush Wamukota playing sparse minutes and Grady still working back to 100% health, Morris is looking at an opportunity to grow significantly as a player. Since the start of MVC play, Morris is averaging 7 points and almost 4 boards on 16 of 30 (52%) shooting, and Morris leads the Shockers in blocked shots. Steady, every game production is what Marshall was expecting from his talented young big man entering the season. If Morris continues to progress consistently it will go a long way towards making the Shockers into a serious threat once more. The sky often appears to be the limit for Morris, but he won’t reach his potential until he’s able to stay on the floor for 20+ minutes per game consistently.
If this team is to make a deep run in March, secondary scoring will be a key element. To that end, Marshall has gotten tremendous production so far from freshman wing Markis McDuffie. The versatile prospect is living up to high expectations after starring on the Atlantic coast as a prep player. McDuffie has scored in double figures six times already this year; when the Shockers were short handed in Florida, he scored 37 points (12.3 per game). McDuffie can run and finish in transition, and he’s shown good instincts on the boards and on defense. Additionally, while Marshall and Co knew they were getting a wing with good range, McDuffie has impressed by knocking down 13 of his first 33 (39%) career triple tries. Additionally, sophomore forward Zach Brown has forced his way into the starting lineup. While he isn’t yet a finished product at either end of the floor, Brown’s versatility and effort are already helping earn him an important role. An efficient player, Brown occasionally commits an aggressive foul or turnover, but his contributions in a variety of situations have been key for the Shockers while the team has fought to get healthy. He has scored in double figures five times, ranks third on the team in steals, and since the beginning of MVC play Brown is shooting 46% from 3 and 57% overall.
The production from Brown and McDuffie has helped to ease the sting of senior wing Evan Wessel’s current 27% mark from downtown. The versatile, high-energy Wessel has tried to fill the scoring void created when the Shockers have been without VanVleet and their other scorers, but scoring has never really been Wessel’s main role as a Shocker. Wessel has played more minutes than anyone but Baker this year, but he should settle into a more comfortable supporting role now that Wichita State is getting healthy. Marshall has been able to rely also upon new guard Frankamp, a potentially explosive weapon who brings yet more nationally recognized talent to the Shocker backcourt. Frankamp has shown flashes of being the ideal third guard behind VanVleet and Baker; he knocks down outside jumpers, can penetrate off the dribble, and is adept at creating open looks for his teammates. Frankamp isn’t yet the team’s best defender, but he has been efficient offensively and can play in a variety of lineups. Oh, and he’s committed just three turnovers in 171 minutes played. Interestingly, Frankamp has scored 49 of his 74 points (66%) on the road so far this season. With back-to-back 14 point games in the past 10 days, Frankamp is looking like a powerful boost to the Shockers’ depth.
It must be noted that each of the five teams which have defeated Wichita State this season appears to be a contender for an NCAA tourney bid. Iowa, Southern Cal, Alabama, Tulsa and Seton Hall are a combined 63-20 as of press time – and both the Hawkeyes and Trojans are ranked in the national Top 25. The Shockers’ depth has been sorely tested already, against strong competition. While the challenge took a toll on Marshall’s team, this is a talented group that can play a variety of lineups when healthy. The lessons learned in November should pay dividends in March.
If the Shockers continue pummeling their Missouri Valley foes by the current average of 16.8 points per game, it will allow for this team to truly gel. Reserve forwards Eric Hamilton (a stretch-4 with range out to the 3pt arc) and Rashard Kelly (a gritty banger who allows Marshall to mix and match lineups) are getting more minutes, Frankamp is finding his role, and the young wings are progressing at an accelerated rate now that conference play has begun.
None of which is to say that these Shockers won’t continue to be tested. Evansville gave Wichita State all it could handle at home, and the Aces currently rank 6th nationally in this week’s College Insider Mid Major Top 25.
There are two tilts upcoming against Northern Iowa (owners of victories of North Carolina and Iowa St). And in the span of 10 days at the end of January/early February, the Shockers must travel to the Ford Center for a rematch against Evansville (the Aces have won 14 straight at home), face current MVC #2 Southern Illinois, and then square off against Illinois St and Drake on the road.
Wichita St was heaped with praise heading into this season, but things did not go as expected to begin with. Injuries aren’t an excuse for a program as experienced and successful as Wichita St has become under Gregg Marshall. And yet, when seemingly half the team is hurt, no team is going to roll along like a well-oiled machine. Marshall’s squad has weathered a storm already this season. That experience combined with the tremendous postseason success the program has experienced under Baker and VanVleet should make for a mix which helps the Shockers to gut out close games in March. And the shame of enduring that rough stretch to start the season only adds fuel to the fire which burns as always in the Shockers’ two superstars.
The Shockers are once again rising, make no mistake. This team remains loaded, and now that it is healthy, there are few opponents who seem likely to stand in the Shockers’ way.
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