Wichita State handled Indiana and knocked off Kansas in the NCAA Tournament. After a loss to Notre Dame, its winning streak resumed.
Alabama came hard after coach Gregg Marshall, waving big dollars and the lure of the SEC. The university and community rallied to push Marshall’s salary to $3 million and keep him in Wichita. Junior guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet looked at their professional options before deciding to spend one more season thrilling fans.
Disaster loomed for a few days in the spring. Then things took a dramatic turn in favor of the Shockers. With those three architects of WSU’s run to national prominence on board, the status quo looks great at Koch Arena.
Baker and VanVleet form one of the nation’s top backcourts. The rest of the Shockers will work with them to form an efficient offense and a fearsome defense. With a Final Four and a Sweet 16 on their résumés, Baker and VanVleet get one more shot at something bigger.
“It’s hard to fathom it’s my last year,” Baker says. “Every year I’ve been here and been to the NCAA Tournament, good things have happened. That’s the motto we have — improve on the year before.”
All Missouri Valley Conference predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
Senior center Anton Grady filled the team’s biggest need when he announced in May that he would play his final season at Wichita State. Grady averaged 14.3 points and 7.9 rebounds as a junior at Cleveland State, earning All-Horizon League honors and a spot on the All-Defensive Team. Grady played three seasons without coming close to the NCAA Tournament. He chose WSU to end his career with a big winner. He made an immediate impression by coming to the gym early to work on his shooting and taking a lead in the weight room during the summer. “He’s been wonderful to coach,” Marshall says. “He’s very strong. He’s a grown man.”
Senior Evan Wessel returns as an undersized power forward. He made 36 percent of his threes, and coaches love his hustle and ability to set screens. He plays tough defense, putting that skill on display against former high school teammate Perry Ellis in WSU’s win over Kansas.
With Grady a proven commodity and Wessel a smart and solid player, Marshall can see which of his returners grow into larger roles. Sophomore Shaq Morris earned MVC All-Freshman honors. Rashard Kelly is rebounder, and Rauno Nurger can score. Senior Bush Wamukota earned more minutes in March because of his defense.
On the wing, sophomore Zach Brown made his case in March to replace Tekele Cotton as WSU’s stopper. He made 11-of-26 3-pointers and could begin the season in the starting lineup.
No. 14 Wichita State Shockers Facts & Figures
Last season: 30–5, 17–1 Missouri Valley
Postseason: Sweet 16
Consecutive NCAAs: 4
Missouri Valley Projection: 1
Postseason Projection: Sweet 16
VanVleet is eager to run an offense with Baker, Wessel and sophomore transfer Conner Frankamp spreading the defense with their shooting ability. Those threats will give VanVleet and the big men room to operate in the lane and around the basket.
Baker improved his scoring from 13.1 points per game as a sophomore to 14.7 as a junior, but his shooting dipped from .456 to .433. Look for his efficiency to improve in ’15-16. Frankamp, from Wichita, played little at Kansas before transferring just prior to the ’14-15 season. He practiced with the Shockers last season and is eligible on Dec. 12, the day they play Utah. “He is unbelievably skilled,” Marshall says. “He shoots it as well as anyone I’ve coached. He’ll make us very difficult to guard.”
Freshman guard Landry Shamet should give WSU the depth in the backcourt it lacked last season.
Key Losses: F Darius Carter, G Tekele Cotton
Top Players: G Fred VanVleet, G Ron Baker, G Conner Frankamp, G Evan Wessel, C Anton Grady
Senior forward Anton Grady is eligible immediately. Sophomore guard Conner Frankamp is a Wichitan with considerable offensive skills. He transferred from Kansas and is eligible on Dec. 12. Guard Landry Shamet and forward Markis McDuffie are ranked in the top 150 from the class of 2015 by national recruiting analysts. A year at a prep school helped Eric Hamilton improve physically and with his work ethic.
WSU’s unprecedented run of success will continue with Baker and VanVleet back. The Shockers should win the MVC for a third straight season and cruise into the NCAA Tournament with a favorable seed.
Grady’s presence alone won’t make WSU a Final Four contender. It needs Morris to continue his development and give the Shockers a powerful two-man punch in the lane. If Kelly can improve his offensive game and Nurger his rebounding, WSU’s rotation of bigs will be satisfactory.
WSU should be deeper and more physically imposing than last season. If Frankamp fits in smoothly, the Shockers should be considered a legitimate threat to reach the Final Four.