In early February, Wichita State forward Evan Wessel walked into the media room in the bowels of Koch Arena in his stocking feet. Reporters were told Wessel could spare only a few minutes to answer questions before needing more treatment for an unspecified injury. Wessel didn’t talk about whatever hurt and it didn’t matter much anyway: nothing short of amputation was going to stop the curly headed, famously scrappy senior from suiting up for the next night’s game, a blowout win on the road over Drake.
In another sense, though, whatever ailed Wessel is indicative of the season the Shockers have experienced. In contrast to the two previous seasons, which unfolded like a magic carpet ride, the 2015-16 campaign has had its share of ups and downs, many due to player injuries.
It’s even possible that the Shockers, who started the season ranked No. 10 nationally, will not make the NCAA tournament. It could come down to their performance in the Missouri Valley Tournament March 3-6 in St. Louis. The Arch Madness trophy comes with an automatic ticket to the Big Dance.
The ups for this year’s team?
• Coach Gregg Marshall passed the legendary Ralph Miller as WSU’s all-time winningest hoops coach, breaking the record of 221 wins in his ninth season.
• Wichita State ran its home winning streak to 43 games — longest in the nation — before losing to Northern Iowa on Feb. 13.
• In mid February, with three conference games remaining, the Shockers appeared headed for a third straight regular season championship, which would be a first for the program.
• Seniors Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker continued moving up the program’s record books, with VanVleet now No. 1 in assists and Baker ranked in both scoring and three-point shots made.
• Injuries, lots of them. The scariest was the on-court collision in December that left senior big man Anton Grady briefly paralyzed, although he was able to come back and contribute later in the season. True freshman Landry Shamet, who played beyond his years in early games, went down in November with a stress fracture in his foot and had not returned to the lineup by this writing. By far the most significant were the ankle and hamstring injuries to VanVleet. Without him in the line-up, the Shockers lost several non-conference games that could have helped their NCAA tourney resume.
• Fouls. The Shockers are committing too many, especially their big men. For the year, opponents are shooting and making more foul shots than WSU. In fact, through February WSU was giving up more attempts from the charity stripe than all but four Division I teams.
• Shooting woes. After starting conference play 12-0 and looking like they might run that particular table for the second time in three years, the Shockers lost to Illinois State and Northern Iowa for a simple reason: they couldn’t hit their shots, especially from three-point range.
“They weren’t falling,” Wessel said after the Illinois State game. “We needed to find another way (to score) and we weren’t doing that.” “We’ve got good shooters out there,” Marshall said at the same news conference. “I think we can make shots. We’re just not making them when it counts.”
The Shockers also got out-rebounded and gave up easy shots in transition in that contest, both uncharacteristic of Marshall’s squads. But the defense wasn’t horrible, considering Illinois State scored 58 points. Marshall said this year’s team isn’t as big as some in the past, which probably plays a part in it occasionally giving up the rebounding edge. He also shot down the idea that going undefeated in conference play had been a goal. “Teamwise, we just want to win the league, play in the post-season and advance as far as we can.”
A week later, the Shockers lost their second conference game due to poor shooting alone, dominating Northern Iowa on the boards and holding them to 53 points. Making Marshall almost sound prophetic, Baker and Conner Frankamp both missed open three-pointers that would have sent the game into overtime.
Even casual WSU fans know late-season stumbles haven’t been fatal to Marshall’s teams. In 2013, they lost their last two regular season games before going on a run that took them to the Final Four. The difference this year is that there may not be a margin of error left.
As Wessel said back in February, “The next game is the most important game on our schedule. It’s a must win.”