On the rebound

Written by Joe Stumpe | Photos provided by Wichita State Universit

Talk about your ups and downs.

The Wichita State men’s basketball team raced out to a 15–1 start and No. 16 ranking nationally this season, buoyed by wins over Oklahoma, Virginia Commonwealth and Memphis. They then lost five of seven American Athletic Conference games, including a beat-down at Houston that represented the worst loss of Coach Gregg Marshall’s 13 years here.

Afterward, an embarrassed Marshall said the psyche of this year’s squad needs more managing than any he has coached.

“I don’t know why, other than they’re pretty young. It’s the most I’ve ever dealt with things like this.”

True to their unpredictable form, the Shockers then rebounded with wins over Central Florida and Tulane, making any forecasts about their postseason prospects about as reliable as the Kansas weather.

Individually, some Shockers were all over the map, too. Here’s a look at a few of the twists and turns this season has taken as the team heads into the AAC tournament and, fans hope, beyond.

Dexter Dennis

After making the AAC’s all-freshman team last year, the athletic 6-foot-5 guard was expected to be WSU’s best player this season and maybe even draw interest from the NBA. Instead, after a slow start, Dennis took a three-game leave of absence to deal with what was described as a mental and physical funk. Marshall and Dennis’ teammates voiced nothing but support for him, and when he returned to the team at halftime of a game against East Carolina, fans at Koch Arena welcomed him with a roar. It took a few games for Dennis to seem comfortable on the floor again, but as the season progressed he once again began to show off his offensive and defensive capabilities. He scored a career-high 21 points against Tulane and might have played an even better all-around game against Central Florida three days earlier.

“He’s playing the way we thought he would play,” Marshall said. “He’s got that fervor back. I read his comment in the paper after the Tulane game, it was like: ‘I really sprinted to make a layup and that’s how I got the dunk instead of going to the 3-point line and that’s what the coaches tell me to do and maybe I should do that more.’ ”

Marshall said Dennis was also finally showing the ability to create easy shots for others.

“One of my favorite plays from the (Tulane) game was when he went up to get an offensive rebound. He put it on the floor once or twice and he went up to score. Two guys came at him to block it and he just flipped to Erik (Stevenson) for the easiest of shots you can imagine."

Erik Stevenson

Marshall loves Stevenson’s intensity and instincts, and the sophomore guard looked like the team’s best player through the first part of January, leading it in points and minutes played.

After the Shockers’ victory over Memphis State, Stevenson said players “feel like we could beat anybody in the country, home or on the road.” But Stevenson struggled during losses to Temple, Houston (twice), Tulsa and Cincinnati, going a combined 10 for 41 shooting in those games and making little impact elsewhere on the floor.

"He’s got a lot of things he needs to do better,” Marshall said. “They took the ball from him twice in Houston and then he fouled needlessly, so he didn’t get much of a chance in the first half. I’ve suggested to Erik to just relax a little bit. He needs to move better without the ball, get some catch-and-shoot open looks and not try to do too much. He seems to just be forcing it now. Some of his shots are missing by not only inches, but by feet.”

“I hope he can relax and we’d love for him to play the way he was earlier.”

Stevenson bounced back with 27 points against Central Florida and a 7-point, 7-rebound, 3-assist, 1-steal performance against Tulane.

Stevenson himself pointed out the “correlation between if I’m playing bad, then the team is losing.”

Noah Fernandes

The freshman guard, slight in size but big in heart, played little during the first two-thirds of the season as he tried to catch up following recovery from a bone bruise. Two other freshmen guards, Grant Sherfield and Tyson Etienne, saw plenty of action and generally played well. But Marshall noticed that Fernandes continued to practice hard and maintain a positive attitude. When the team needed a spark following its three-game slide against Tulsa, Cincinnati and Houston, Marshall inserted Fernandes into the starting lineup. Fernandes admitted he was “shocked” but played well enough to get the nod again for the next game.

Marshall compared him to Matt Braeuer, a crowd favorite who was left over from the Mark Turgeon era when Marshall arrived.

“He’s a little whip-it kid and he’s not very big,” Marshall said. “I don’t think he’s as quick as he was when he got here. He’s got another gear I hope he can get as he gets further removed from the foot injury. It was a significant injury, a bone bruise on the bottom of his foot. It really affected him. The timing was unfortunate because we were about to play games and he was in the mix and all of a sudden he wasn’t in the mix. He went nine weeks without any activity.”

Asbjorn Midtgaard

The Shockers’ 7-foot junior came on strong late last season, leading many to think he’d play a bigger role this year. He didn’t, at least through mid February, averaging just 8.2 minutes, 1.6 minutes and 2 rebounds per game. A glimpse of his potential to impact games might be seen from the fact that he was still tied for second on the team for blocks, with 10. Marshall hasn’t said what’s kept Midtgaard at the bottom of the bigs’ depth chart but didn’t rule out — or perhaps was hopeful for — him earning more playing time down the stretch.

“He had a great play against Tulane to start a fast break when he got over and blocked a shot,” Marshall said. “Depending on the matchups, he gives us a big body in there. He’s a pretty good rebounder when he uses both hands. The biggest thing is he plays with one hand.”

“The analogy I used with him the other day was to imagine you haven’t eaten in three to four days. If you got some food, would you eat it with one hand or two hands? Think about it."

It’s been a rollercoaster year for fans, too. The team equaled last year’s regular season victory of 17 games before January was even over. The fast start and national ranking had many fans envisioning Shockers returning to the NCAA tournament. The three-game losing streak sent some into panic mode. But two of those losses, to Tulsa and Cincinnati, were on tough last-second shots by the other team.

As the regular season entered the home stretch, Marshall hoped a quicker-paced offense and a focus on “getting better” rather than “must win” would work with this most unusual of teams.

“I just think it’s a better approach with these young guys,” he said. “I’m not going to say ‘You’ve got to win this game and this game,’ because they’re all must-win games. We did that, and it didn’t work so well.”

“We’re going to talk about getting better. We’re already better than last year. We had 17 wins going in to the conference tournament and now we’re at 19 with six to go. We’re going to continue to work for 23, 24, 25 wins, that would be great. Every game upcoming is going to be a tough game.”

Jaime Echenique leads by example and words

Jaime Echenique has thrown several highlight reel dunks this season, but his most important moment may have come outside the spotlight. At the first practice after the Shockers were blown out by Houston in early February — their third straight loss — Coach Gregg Marshall gave players an option: keep running sprints or honestly address issues that were keeping them from playing together as a team.

Echenique “was the one that spoke first yesterday and was the strongest,” Marshall said after that session. “It makes sense. It's his last go-around and opportunity. He can't waste this opportunity. He wants to play in the NCAA Tournament. He's only had two years, but he has a chance. He wants to make the most of it. He was the most emotional. He had some pointed comments to make. He appealed to the younger guys to look around and stop looking in the mirror and try to help others around you."

The Shockers won their next two games handily. That Echenique’s words would carry weight isn’t surprising. Through mid February, he led the team in rebounds and blocks and was its most efficient scorer in terms of points per minute.

But the skilled senior center from Colombia, who came to Wichita State after two years at Trinity Valley Junior College in Texas, admits that calling out his teammates in practice wasn’t something that comes naturally. Although well-spoken and far from shy, he prefers to “lead by example.”

“It’s been a challenge for me, because of my personality, to have to say things that maybe people don’t want to hear. It’s a lot of pressure on my shoulders, but I understand. I’ve been trying to figure out how I can help these young guys.”

His message: “Keep trusting each other, keep communicating, keep learning from mistakes. And enjoy the game.”

Finding himself in a leadership role is one of many surprises that have come Echenique’s way. Despite being a standout at Trinity and in Colombia, Echenique didn’t know for sure if that would translate to success at the Division 1 level. It has, and Echenique gives credit to the culture Marshall has built at WSU.

“One of the biggest fears when you come out of juco is to fit in the right place,” he said. “I feel comfortable with the coaches, the staff and players.”

Comfortable enough to tell his teammates they needed to play for the team, not themselves. His message: “Keep trusting each other, keep communicating, keep learning from mistakes. And enjoy the game.”

Echenique’s own favorite memory in a Shocker uniform so far isn’t one of his dunks. It’s the time he got knocked down by a screen against Tulsa but jumped up in time to block his opponent’s shot. “I thought at any time, he’s going to dunk on me. I was shocked.”

Echenique is set to graduate on time with a general arts-sociology degree and minor in psychology. He will undoubtedly get a chance to play professional basketball somewhere, but he won’t forget the two years he spent here.

“I love the city. I think it’s been the best decision I ever made in my life.”

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