Senior status

Rashard Kelly and other Shocker seniors hope to lead team deep into postseason

Written by Joe Stumpe

Rashard Kelly walked into the media room in Koch Arena with ice bags strapped to both of his knees. “And I’ve got one on my back,” the senior forward for Wichita State University said, easing himself into a chair after a practice in mid-February.

Kelly wasn’t complaining. This is how you become one of the few Shockers in program history to play in every game since your freshman year. In fact, if WSU goes deep into its conference tournament and the NCAA tournament this month, Kelly could end up playing in more games than any other Shocker. The current record: 141, shared by Tekele Cotton and Fred VanVleet.

Playing on is all the motivation needed for Kelly and the team’s five other seniors, who are nearing the end of their careers in black and gold. Kelly, Shaquille Morris, Zach Brown, Conner Frankamp, Darral Willis, Jr. and Rauno Nurger have all contributed significantly to the team compiling a ninth straight 20-plus win season. Redshirt sophomore guard Landry Shamet had the best regular season overall of this year’s team, and junior Markis McDuffie might have the most potential as a pro (despite being slowed by an injury this year), but the Shockers will probably go only as far in post-season play as their seniors can collectively carry them.

Kelly is WSU’s ironman, and not just in terms of durability. He leads the team in the statistical category — rebounds — most associated with sheer effort (topping the American Athletic Conference in offensive rebounds). He’s also the team’s vocal leader “on and off the court,” as fellow big man Nurger said. In January, after the first-two game conference losing streak in his career as a Shocker, Kelly stood up before the team and challenged them to play with more toughness. WSU responded with wins in five of their next six games, four of them by double digits.

“Some people are uncomfortable saying things” in team settings, Kelly said. “I’ll take what they say [privately] and tell it for them. Just being a voice in the locker room.”

And he leads by example, diving on the floor for loose balls, taking charges and of course rebounding. Nurger pointed to a play in one game where Kelly snagged a rebound despite being at half-court when the shot was taken.

“He just goes hard every single play,” Nurger said.

Although a contributor to the Shockers since his first game — hence the 130-plus game streak — Kelly didn’t become a consistent starter until this year. He was, after all, playing behind some talented and determined teammates in the likes of former Shockers Cotton and Evan Wessel. He came from an impressive basketball background, playing on top AAU and prep teams. But at Wichita State, Coach Gregg Marshall needed Kelly to be gritty rather than flashy. Before last season, Marshall challenged Kelly to fulfill that role, partly by getting in the best shape of his life. The chiseled 6-foot-7, 227-pound frame he sports today shows that he followed orders. Now that Kelly is the player he envisioned, Marshall has challenged him to “instill some of that in the younger players. I encouraged him to do what Evan Wessel did for him.”

Looking back on his career, Kelly says his favorite game probably came as a freshman, when he hit a buzzer-beater during a holiday tournament in Hawaii. It was his first Christmas away from home, and he knew his large, close-knit family was watching on TV back in Virginia. Others might cite a couple games this year. In November — during another game in Hawaii — Kelly raced down the floor to twice block shots and deny Marquette an easy bucket. Marshall called it “my favorite play of the year so far.”

“Just a hustle play,” Kelly called it.

In December, Kelly helped WSU win its first game in the AAC by collecting 12 rebounds, six of them offensive, against Connecticut.

Some of Kelly’s approach seems to have rubbed off on Morris as well. Shaq dove on the floor to retrieve a ball during a key game against Temple last month, in another play that immediately became one of Marshall’s favorites.

Kelly is soft-spoken and humble off the court. Probably the most important non-basketball thing to happen to him at WSU, he said, was getting a “big baby” of a pit bull named Tank.

“I really embrace it, being a dog parent. It kind of calms me down.”

Barring some mishap, Kelly will have played in 136 college games by the time the regular season ends. He could at least tie the record for most games played if the Shockers reach the AAC conference tournament final and the second round of the NCAA tourney. The team looked to be peaking in late February, beating No. 5-ranked Cincinnati on the road for the program’s biggest victory since the era of VanVleet and Ron Baker.

Asked about his playing streak, Kelly said, “I thank God first of all for allowing me to play this many games.” Then he thanks WSU fans for their support. “I know my game hasn’t been pretty for all four years. For them to cheer is just unbelievable.”

But Kelly is not lacking confidence. After helping the Shockers go as far as they can this year, he believes he’s ready to play professional. He sees himself as a player in the versatile mode of Golden State Warrior star Draymond Green.

“You need something done?” he asked. “Call me. I’ll get it done for you.”

More Shocker senior moments

Zach Brown A third-year starter who’s considered the team’s defensive stopper, Brown made the Missouri Valley Conference All-Defensive team last year.

Conner Frankamp Sharpshooting guard who set a school record for consecutive games with a three-pointer, while compiling one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the nation.

Shaquille Morris Leading scorer and shot-blocker whose personality and occasional monster games — such as 23 points and 13 rebounds against Temple last month — have made him a crowd favorite.

Darral Willis Jr. The Shockers’ most efficient scorer, averaging 9.3 points in 16.2 minutes per game, Willis added a three-point shot to his repertoire this year.

Rauno Nurger Has upped his point and rebound totals while playing 15 minutes a game, and has the experience of playing well in last year’s NCAA tourney.


Up and down season for WSU women

Written by Joe Stumpe

Early one morning in January, Wichita State women’s basketball coach Keitha Adams donned a yellow bodysuit to greet players preparing for a game against Memphis State later that day. The Shockers had beaten No. 23-ranked South Florida a few days earlier, and Adams’ vivid getup was designed to help ward off an emotional let-down.

“I like to have fun,” Adams said. “I want the kids to have fun. I’m not a boring coach.”

Of course, Adams’ first year as coach of the Shockers hasn’t been all fun and great games. Taking over a new teach is tough anywhere. Adams led WSU during their first year in the American Athletic Conference. That meant a serious step up in competition from the Missouri Valley Conference — considered the nation’s 24th best women’s basketball conference — to one ranked No. 7.

“Everything was new for the staff and I,” said Adams, an Oxford, Kan. native who came to WSU after coaching 16 years at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Adams certainly wasn’t happy with the Shockers’ 7-12 start. In January, though, the team reeled off five straight conference wins, following a mantra they called “Go Get It!” That included the victory over South Florida, WSU’s first over a top-25 opponent since 1998. “They caught fire and really started playing basketball,” Adams said.

They dropped the next four games, including two close losses and a 124-43 drubbing by No. 1 Connecticut. “They’re just an empire,” Adams said of UConn, which has won 11 national championships. “A lot of [future] pros.”

Barring a near miracle, WSU won’t quality for post-season play this year, despite solid seasons from seniors Rangie Bessard (19.5 points and 7.4 rebounds a game), Diamond Lockhart (10.1 points and 3.9 rebounds) and Angiee Tompkins (9.9 points and 5.5 rebounds). Adams calls the 2017-18 season a "transition year." Until she gets some of her own recruits on campus, she can't really put her imprint on the program, yellow bodysuits aside.

"I'm here to build," she said.

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