WICHITA — Wichita State embraced the mantra of “play angry” last season, and all that pent-up angst the Shockers brought to the floor every night carried them all the way to the Final Four.
It’s going to be much harder for them to be angry this season.
The Shockers are suddenly the toast of the town, the latest mid-major darling that beat up on college basketball’s blue bloods on the sport’s biggest stage. They should be all smiles as the heavy favorites to win the Missouri Valley Conference after the departure of Creighton for the Big East, and just maybe make another March run to remember this season.
“Nine guys played in the Final Four that are returning,” Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said, “so expectations will be different than they were last year.”
Indeed, the Shockers know they’ll get everyone’s best shot after piling up 30 wins last season and making it to the national semifinals, where they lost to eventual champion Louisville.
Along the way, 6-foot-8 forward Cleanthony Early stamped himself as a legitimate NBA prospect by scoring 24 points and pulling down 10 rebounds against the Cardinals. Some thought he might declare for the draft, but he opted instead to return for his senior season.
“I’m thinking a lot about this season right now, doing what I need to do, being productive, helping these guys,” Early said. “Hopefully the NBA will still be there.”
Early will be joined by sweet-shooting Ron Baker, another NCAA tournament star, and former top-100 recruit Fred VanVleet to form one of the nation’s most dynamic backcourts.
“The position I’m in now at Wichita State isn’t something I envisioned when I was a young kid,” Baker said. “I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished here and hopefully we can build on it.”
Marshall said several NBA scouts who’ve found their way to Wichita, Kan., to check on Early have walked away gushing about Baker, who was a 3-point machine in the postseason.
“Everybody is intrigued,” Marshall said. “Now it’s up to them. They have the attention of those folks. They have the stage to perform. Now it’s a matter of doing it consistently.”
As the Shockers embark on a new season, here are five things to watch:
• CLASS OF MVC: Creighton and Wichita State had built quite the rivalry over the past decade, but the Bluejays’ defection leaves the Shockers as the class of the Valley. Indiana State returns four starters and should challenge for the league crown, but the road to the title will likely go through Koch Arena. “You just have to play the schedule as it’s put in front of us,” Marshall said, “and I think there will be surprise teams in the Valley to give us great competition.”
• APPLE A DAY: The Shockers would be wise to follow that old wives’ tale to keep the doctor away this season. Baker missed a good chunk of last year with a stress fracture in his left foot, and starting guard Evan Wessel took a medical redshirt after season-ending surgery on a broken finger. The Shockers have depth, but their strength is in their top eight.
• ENERGY WANTED: Two of the Shockers’ biggest losses to graduation were forward Carl Hall and point guard Malcolm Armstead, both of whom provided emotional leadership. Hall in particular was the energy guy for Wichita State, scrapping after rebounds and loose balls. “All our seniors, they went out as winners,” Marshall said, “and now we have to have another group of seniors to evolve as leaders, and I think they can do that.”
• WELCOME NEWCOMERS: The Shockers have plenty of guys ready to step into the spotlight, including Kadeem Coleby, who averaged 9.6 points and 4.9 rebounds two years ago for Louisiana-Lafayette. Darius Carter, one of the top junior college recruits in the country, will also compete for time at forward. “You’re obviously going to play seven, eight minimum, but we’ve gone up to 10, 11, 12 in the past,” Marshall said. “You’d better have some depth.”
• SCHEDULE OUTLOOK: Wichita State opens the season Nov. 9 against Emporia State, and then takes on another mid-major darling in Western Kentucky. But the schedule isn’t overly difficult with the departure of Creighton from the Valley. Games against Alabama, Saint Louis and Tennessee should pose tests, but it will be a rarity that the Shockers are underdogs. “I hope we can live up to those expectations,” Marshall said. “They’re going to be lofty.”