Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall heads into the 2015-16 basketball season like a poker player holding two aces and one very high card in his hand. What he’s able to draw from the rest of his deck will determine whether this year’s Shockers once again play for high stakes.
The aces, of course, are returning seniors and pre-season All Americans Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker. The two have already proven themselves such steady, often spectacular performers that, during public appearances by Marshall last month, there was hardly a question concerning the pair.
Baker and VanVleet spent part of their summer competing for spots on the elite Pan American Games team (Baker made it, VanVleet didn’t), so there’s no reason to think they haven’t added to their already formidable skill sets.
The high card — let’s call him the Jack of Spades — is Evan Wessel, a Wichita Heights product whose individual statistics aren’t as impressive but who brings toughness and other intangibles to every game he’s in. “When we put Evan on the court, we win more often than not,” Marshall said. “To me, that has value.”
Back — for more?
Listening to Marshall hedge his bets about the other 15 players on the roster, one can imagine him saying the same things in practice. Oh, he likes them, but he’s far from naming starters, let alone potential stars, as he prods them forward.
Of five Shockers who logged significant playing time last year, sophomore forward Rashard Kelly was labeled “most improved” in one preseason report. Marshall sounds like he isn’t convinced. Kelly, after improving his shooting through many reps in the gym, “hasn’t shot as well of late,” his coach said. “I would want him to continue [to put up shots on his own]. That’s going to be big for him.”
Tom “Bush” Wamukota, a senior big man from Kenya, is capable of scoring but travels and makes other mis- takes when he tries to do too much. If Wamukota will focus on rebounding, Marshall said, “Fred and Ron are going to get [him] a couple dunks each game.”
On every Shocker fan’s mind is the loss of another ace, defensive stopper Tekele Cotton, who graduated last year as the program’s all-time winningest player. Marshall said sophomore forward Zach Brown, like Cotton, has the athletic ability to guard just about anyone but “needs to focus more.” Asked if Brown might be primed for a breakout year, Marshall said, “I would like to see that, but I have no control over that” — a familiar Marshallism meaning it’s up to the player.
Rauno Nurger, a 6-foot-10 sophomore center from Estonia, has put on weight and gotten stronger but still has to rebound better to earn playing time, Marshall said.
Shaq Morris, the Shockers’ biggest body at 260 lbs., is also the most intriguing. Morris had the best year of any Shocker freshman last year, making the Missouri Valley Conference’s All-Bench team but is also prone to what Marshall calls real and “phantom” injuries, including a knee that’s been swelling since surgery after last season.
“When he’s out there, he’s shown a lot of promise,” the coach said. “The problem is how long can he go?”
A couple of transfers bring significant experience to the Shockers. Anton Grady played parts of four seasons at Cleveland State, earning all-conference honors twice, and comes to WSU with one purpose in mind: use his final year of eligibility to play in the NCAA tournament. Marshall called the 23-year-old Grady strong and tough, a good defender but foul-prone. After three knee surgeries, Grady has lost some athleticism but makes up for it with experience. “He plays an old man’s game,” Marshall said. “He knows how to use angles and his behind.”
The other is sophomore guard Conner Frankamp, the Wichita City League’s all-time scorer at North High who left the University of Kansas after a somewhat disappointing freshman year. Marshall said it’s been a “humbling experience” for Frankamp, who he calls “really coachable” with undeniable offensive skills. “He’s going to be a good player,” Marshall said of Frankamp, who becomes eligible to play Dec. 12, after sitting out the first semester’s games.
Freshmen haven’t contributed hugely to the Shockers’ success under Marshall, but he likes this year’s four scholarship freshmen.
“All four of them came in the door very competitive,” Marshall said. “They’ve all had that focus.”
Getting special mention is Landry Shamet, a 6-4 guard from Kansas City, Mo. whose athletic ability (he can jump onto a box 5 1/2 feet high) and mental approach Marshall praises. Guard Ty Taylor, 6-foot-1 and all of 160 lbs., is “really a whippet,” Marshall said. “He can run and jump and score the ball,” but, like most freshmen, needs to play more under control. At the other end of the spectrum physically is forward Eric Hamilton, from Atlanta, whose 6-foot-8, 233-pound frame “is a good start walking through the door.”
Hamilton has a “live body” like another Shocker Mar- shall remembers well — New York Knick Cleanthony Early. Then there’s forward Markis McDuffie, from New Jersey’s famed St. Anthony High program. “Very skilled” but “very thin,” Marshall said, “I’m not going to say Kevin Durant, but that’s who he reminds you of.”
At the end of the day (and probably most games), the Shockers will rely heavily on VanVleet and Baker. Talking about the loss of Cotton, for instance, Marshall says his two returning stars are in the same league defensively. Referring to the college game’s new 30-second shot clock, Marshall says, “When those guys are out there, I don’t feel much stress at all” in getting a shot.
After noting the number of former Shockers now playing in the NBA — four are currently on rosters — Marshall said of his dynamic duo, “Of course, we think we’ve got at least two more in the near future.”
WSU Women feature new faces, same high goals
Jaleesa Chapel has a word of warning for anyone watching or playing against the Shockers women’s basketball team this year.
“We have some heat coming,” said Chapel, a junior guard from Texas.
That’s good news coming off a tumultuous off season for the Shockers in which four players, including two starters, left the team over disagreements with coach Jody Adams’ coaching methods.
Much of the heat Chapel refers to is expected to come from a couple of players playing their first games for the Shockers this year. Guard Diamond Lockhart is a sophomore transfer from Texas Tech and forward Rangie Bessard came to the Shockers after playing one year at Minnesota. Both came from bigger conferences, sitting out a year after their moves.
Chapel, who played in all but one of her team’s games last year, calls Lockhart “a slasher” who “has all the component we need.” Bessard can do everything from “playing in the guard spot to going in the paint,” Chapel said.
Despite the players’ departure, Adams has built the most successful women’s program in school history, achieving back-to-back NCAA appearances, Missouri Valley Conference titles and other firsts. She doesn’t sound worried about losing so much experience from last year’s 29-5 team.
“They get after it,” she said of her current squad, which includes no seniors. “I love the maturity, how they go about it.”
“We will do some things we’ve never done before,” she said.
And as always, she added, “I look for us to be a scrappy team” — and one able to run faster and longer than opponents.
That suits Lockhart fine. She says she came to WSU because of the coaching staff. “I love how hard they work.”
GAME TIME — The Shockers open with an exhibition against Hawaii Pacific on Nov. 7 at Koch Arena, then face Charleston Southern in their first regular season game on Nov. 13, also at Koch. The conference schedule starts Dec. 31, against Drake. Nonconference opponents include Southern California (Nov. 26), Alabama or Xavier (Nov. 27), Saint Louis, (Dec. 5), UNLV (Dec. 9), Utah (Dec. 12), Seton Hall (Dec. 19), Nevada (Dec. 22) and New Mexico State (Dec. 28).
REDEMPTION TIME — Former WSU assistant Chris Jans returns to the Shockers as a consultant, after losing his head coaching job at Bowling Green following an incident in a bar. “It was a bad mistake,” Marshall said. “But I profess our program to be family. I decided this young man deserves a second chance.”
FAMILY BUSINESS — Marshall revealed he has another, nonpaid coach on the staff — his wife, Lynn. “The assistant head coach shares a bed with me, that’s true.”
PERFECT SEASON — In Marshall’s mind, that would involve a national championship, all senior players graduating and “pitching a couple of [defensive] shutouts.”
“I would then retire and live off the movie rights.”
GAME TIME — The Shocker women’s nonconference opponents include Creighton (Nov. 13), Missouri (Nov. 18), Arkansas State (Nov. 21) and Tennessee (Dec. 11). They begin conference play against Indiana State on Jan. 1.
GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN — Another program first under Adams was having a player drafted by the WNBA. That would be the best player in program history, Alex Harden, who graduated last year and plays for Phoenix Mercury. “I don’t think we’ll replace her,” Lockhart said, but the current roster’s players “all have something.”