Keep the faith

Can new-look Shockers compete in the AAC this year? Stay tuned.

Written by Joe Stumpe | Photography by Michael Carroll Jr. and Kacy Meinecke Photography

It’s been a while since Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall used a phrase like “work in progress” to describe one of his teams. The Shockers dominated the Missouri Valley Conference during their last few years in that league and nearly won their inaugural run in the more powerful American Athletic Conference last year.

This year looks much different. After losing all five starters — four seniors and sophomore Landry Shamet, who’s now playing in the NBA — the Shockers were picked to finish eighth in the AAC’s preseason poll.

“The competitor in me doesn’t want to take a step back,” Marshall said last month during the team’s media day. “But the truth is we probably will in the short term.”

Marshall, who started his 21-year head coaching career at Winthrop before coming to Wichita in 2007, said he believes it’s the youngest team he’s coached. How young? Seven freshmen, four sophomores, two juniors and two seniors. Only the latter two — Markis McDuffie and Samajae Haynes-Jones — have logged significant minutes for WSU.

Marshall said his first impression of all those freshmen was that they are “very excitable and coachable, and they’ve maintained that.”

“We have some good practices, some not-so-good practices and some poor ones,” he said. “With this group, you can have a wild swing.”

Shockers

The most important lesson — which he indicated had not sunk in yet — “would be that they understand how hard you must play to be successful at this level of college basketball.”

“That’s the baseline. We have to have that to start.”

On the other hand, three of the freshmen are among Marshall’s top recruits ever. Jamarius Burton is a floor-leader type of guard and three-star recruit who picked WSU over Butler, UMass and Temple after leading his North Carolina high school team to a state championship. Erik Stevenson is a confident, hot-shooting guard from Washington state who might have been even more highly recruited. And Marshall has already called 6-foot-5 guard Dexter Dennis from Louisiana someone with the physical tools to play in the NBA.

“Now we’re recruiting American Athletic Conference talent, we think,” Marshall said.

A couple of junior college recruits and one transfer could be of more help in the short run. JUCO All-American Ricky Torres seems cut from the same mold as many of Marshall’s point guards from the past, capable of scoring but even better at distributing the ball without turning it over.

Steve & Nola

“He’s got a maturity about him — a moxie, if you will,” Marshall said, adding that Torres already seems to understand what he wants out of a floor leader. “I’m sure that statement will come back to bite me.” Columbia native Jaime Echenique is a 6-foot-11 “big body” with good ball skills who had offers from several other quality programs.

Then there’s Teddy Allen, who transferred after a productive freshman year at West Virginia. Nicknamed “Teddy Buckets” for his ability to score, Allen and Marshall are awaiting a decision from the NCAA about whether he can play this year.

Among familiar faces, many Shocker fans will be watching to see if McDuffie can return to the form of his sophomore season, when he led the team in scoring and rebounding and seemed a surefire NBA prospect before a foot injury marred last year. Marshall said McDuffie had a “great fall camp,” seems to have gotten all his athleticism back and has “slowed down a little bit” — in a good way. He’s also embraced the leadership responsibility expected of seniors, as has Haynes-Jones. That super-quick East High product started out hot last year before losing time to Shamet and a stomach ailment that often left him feeling nauseous. Haynes-Jones “seems to have that under control” and “really scored the ball beautifully in fall workouts,” Marshall said, but needs to get better defensively.

Shockers

Also back, with intriguing possibilities, is 7-foot sophomore Asbjorn Midtgaard, who Marshall has said is the most physically imposing player he’s ever coached. Midtgaard returned to his native Denmark for only a short visit over the summer, instead staying in Wichita to work on his game. Marshall called Midtgaard and Echenique, his other imported big man, “just the nicest kids ever” — and didn’t necessarily mean it as a compliment. “They’ve got to get a little tougher, a little more nasty.”

In one respect, these new-look Shockers may resemble typical Marshall teams more than last year’s squad, which was the best offensively and worst defensively of his tenure. Marshall said he wants the Shockers to play better defense, rebound the ball “and hopefully score enough points to win.”

It may not click all at once.

“There are going to be some deep breaths this year. Don’t lose faith.”


Know Your Shockers

Samajae Haynes-Jones, “I hate to lose a lot. I’ll get emotional … I take the game very seriously.”

Jaime Echenique, whose mother is a chef at one of the best-known restaurants in Colombia, says he “can fry everything. I live with Markis [McDuffie], Rod [Brown] and Samajae [Haynes-Jones]. Sometimes I’m cooking and they say it really smells good.”

Rod Brown, who put on about 25 pounds of muscle by drinking five protein shakes a day and lifting weights during his freshman redshirt season: “I wasn’t going to make an impact being that little. I had to change my body.”

Erik Stevenson, on whether he’s the next Ron Baker: “That’s a big question. I’m trying to be like him — he’s in the NBA — but I want to be the best Erik Stevenson I can be.”


WSU Women Also Filled With Unknowns

By almost any measure, the Wichita State women’s Shockers overachieved in their first season in the American Athletic Conference.

They went 9-7 in league play and earned a No. 6 seed in the AAC post-season tournament after being picked 10th in preseason polls. They upset No. 23 University of South Florida at Charles Koch Arena for just the third win in program history against a nationally ranked opponent.

Now coach Keitha Adams, starting her second full season in that role, faces a rebuilding challenge on par with men’s coach Gregg Marshall. Her team returns just two players who played significant roles last year, and a third who contributed to a lesser extent. The rest have never played a minute for WSU.

“We’re in a teaching and learning mode every day,” Adams said. “It’s not a well-oiled machine. It’s gonna take time.”

The returning players with the most experience are forward Sabrina Lozada-Cabbage and guard Cesaria Ambrosio, both seniors who can shoot the three-pointer. Sophomore forward Alyssia Faye played in all but one of the team’s games last year and scored six points against the best team in the nation, the University of Connecticut.

Adams said she’s been able to recruit some “really athletic guards” but “has to get bigger” to dream of competing against the conference’s elite.

“You’ve got [future] pros in this conference,” she said.

The Shockers, in this year’s pre-season conference poll, once again landed at No. 10.

“We’re pretty motivated after the pre-season ranking,” Adams said. “We’re all about going out and getting it. You just take these [rankings] as a motivation.”

One interesting aspect of the current roster is the emphasis on international players. In addition to Ambrisio, who hails from Switzerland, and Faye, who’s from France, freshman Natalia Ryng [Poland], Carla Bremaud [France] and Seraphine Bastin [Belgium] are newcomers.

Adams credited associate head coach Ewa Laskowska, who’s from Poland, with priming the pipeline to European talent.

“We’re looking for them to come in and help us, absolutely,” Adams said.

 
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