Young and restless

With a year or less of college basketball behind most of them, this year’s Shockers are aiming high

Written by Joe Stumpe

As one of the youngest teams in the nation last year, the Wichita State Shockers had to grow up fast or fold. They chose the former, playing their way far into both the American Athletic Conference tournament and the NIT postseason tourney after a rocky start.

The question for this year’s team is: Can they fulfill the higher expectations that finish created? Coach Gregg Marshall’s team is still relatively young and lost its best player with the graduation of Markis McDuffie to professional basketball (McDuffie signed with a Hungarian team after playing with the Indiana Pacers summer league team).

Marshall said success probably hinges not on one player trying to replace McDuffie’s 18.5 points-a-game average, but rather on “all of the other guys that played significant minutes last year…all producing a little more than they did last year.”

That includes big men Jaime Echenique, Asbjorn Midtgaard, Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler and Morris Udeze, along with guards Jamarius Burton, Erik Stevenson and Dexter Dennis. Judging from practices, Marshall said Stevenson and Burton might have taken the biggest leaps from last year, changing their bodies in the off-season to become better athletes.

“They've cut their bodies up. They're a little quicker, more explosive, but they haven't lost any strength. They've slimmed down from what they were last year, so in Erik's case, he's able to guard better, which was a struggle last year. These guys will hopefully be able to finish better around the basket."

Echenique, who proved he could score inside last year, is expected to be even better now that he’s over a foot injury that slowed him down.

Midtgaard, the team’s only 7-footer, came on strong as the year progressed, leading Marshall to say, “Maybe I should have been playing him more all along.”

“His whole deal is confidence and playing with a fervor and a tenacity,” Marshall said. “Sometimes, still today, (I tell him) just let it go man. It's okay to flex your muscles a little bit and growl in the court. You can always go back to being the super-nice young man that you are (when you are) off the court.”

In a sign that this year’s team is still a long way from some of his veteran squads of the past, Marshall said the team will also be dependent to some extent on three freshmen guards — Noah Fernandes, Grant Sherfield and Tyson Etienne — who are part of his highest-ranked recruiting class yet at WSU.

“Those guys are very good, very competitive, very talented and they can all shoot it really well,” Marshall said. “But how freshmen handle the situation, how they handle the basketball coming out of the chute will be very, very important to see."

Marshall said Sherfield has the potential to be a “Fred VanVleet” type of defender, taking opposing guards out of the game with steals and deflections, and seemed to enjoy telling a story about the competitiveness of Sherfield and Fernandes.

“There was one day, before Noah went down (with an injury) over the summer, where the two of them were going at each other and Noah stole the ball from Grant and then Grant came back and got all up in Noah and stole the ball from Noah. The next thing I know, I thought I was going to have to break up a fight at midcourt. They were right at each other, but it wasn't anything near a fight. It was the way they were pushing each other that was awesome. It's going to make them better, and I praised them for being so dogged in their determination to guard each other.

Freshmen forwards DeAntoni Gordon and Josaphat Bilau are expected to compete for minutes, too.

The Shockers were picked fourth in the AAC’s preseason poll, up from eighth a year ago. Marshall said his freshmen need to discover and his returning players remember what turned last year’s season around.

“You can say that 'til you're blue in the face, but they ultimately have to see it for themselves, and they did. We weren't great defensively early. We were turning the ball over, not shooting it well and we didn't win. But then, later in the year, we cut down on the turnovers and the defensive rebounding got better. We still didn't shoot it very well, but we started to win. So, cut down on the turnovers, play great defense, and rebound and we will have a chance to win every night. When the ball goes in the basket you can beat anyone.”

Burton, one of the players expected to take a leadership role this year, said last year was definitely a trial by fire.

"We were kind of just thrown in there. I feel like this year nothing will surprise us as much as it did last year. We're just able to take what we learned and apply it."

Summer Swish

We asked several Shockers “What’d you do over the summer?” in basketball terms.

Asbjorn Midtgaard, junior center: "I've been working on my growl a little bit. That's basically it. Just be strong with the ball and have that (tough) mindset."

Morris Udeze, sophomore center: “I’ve been at the gym shooting a lot. Just shooting.”

Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler, sophomore center: "I worked on dropping my weight so I could run at more positions and play more, and (I also worked on) my defensive stance and where I stand during the game."

Erik Stevenson, sophomore guard: "I got in the weight room and lost 14 or 15 pounds, so that's helping me with my off-ball athleticism and quickness. It has made the game a lot easier for me. I worked on dribbling and shooting, but the big thing was becoming consistent on offense and defense — getting tougher, getting quicker. Stuff like that."

Jamarius Burton, sophomore guard: "This summer I just got up a lot of shots, trying to correct some things. I was just getting a better feel for the offense and a better chemistry with my teammates."

Dexter Dennis, sophomore guard: "I've just been trying to become a better player off the bounce for me and my teammates. My teammates come at me every day because they know I'm trying to be better at that. I'm thankful to have them. I'm trying to become a better passer and dribbler."


Bounce in the Step

Training Program Energized Women’s Team

To get her team ready for this year’s season, Wichita State women’s basketball coach Keitha Adams used a different type of off-season program. Instead of relying solely on drills, pickup games and the weight room, Adams had players swimming, running and biking.

The idea was to leave plenty of bounce in the step of her players as they battle through the American Athletic Conference and non-conference schedule.

“It’s a long season, a lot of banging,” Adams said. “I think at the end of the day, they felt really good about themselves.”

Adams got a reason to feel good about herself, too, receiving a two-year contract extension in May. That appears to be a signal that athletic director Darron Boatright likes where the program is headed, even if Adams’ overall record in yellow and black remains under .500, at 26–35 over two years.

Without making excuses, Adams said she feels like she’s actually still in the second year of building the program, since she inherited a squad with eight seniors in 2017–18, then played with the fifth-youngest team in the country last year.

One of those players — Carla Bremaud — may have surprised even those people who saw her lead Wichita’s Life Prep Academy to a state championship in her only year there. A 5-foot-11 native of France, Bremaud was named to the American Athletic Conference’s All-Freshman team while leading the Shockers in minutes, scoring (9.9) and three-pointers (47).

Bremaud spent the summer honing her game with the French national team’s under-20 team, helping it to a third-place finish in the Women’s European Championship. “For me, that gave me a little bit of confidence in myself,” Bremaud said, adding that one of her most important takeaways from the experience was learning “how a leader needs to be.”

Like other Shockers, she bought into Adams’ conditioning program, saying she improved her own performance in several tests of athleticism. Asked what she learned from playing in the AAC last year, Bremaud said, “You have to play physical, fast and also be smart. That’s what I saw on the international team, too.”

Adams said the biggest weakness of last year’s team was scoring; the Shockers averaged just under 60 points per game. As a result the school bought two machines that feed balls to shooters. “We’ve had some kids really working on their shooting,” the coach said.

Returning players who saw significant court time last year include senior guards Ashley Reid and Maya Brewer, senior forward Raven Prince, sophomore guards Jaida Hampton and Seraphine Bastin and sophomore forward Shyia Smith.

One new wrinkle this season will be the addition of the tallest player during Adams’ time here: Diamond Forrest, a 6-foot-5 junior forward from Walters State Community College. Adams thinks she can contribute once she’s acclimated to the Shockers’ system, and Bremaud is definitely looking forward to a big target inside.

“Last year, we weren’t that tall,” she said. “To have someone to put the ball inside to, that’s going to give spacing to the guards and outside shooters.”

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