It’s hard to top perfect, so the Shockers will likely take a small step back next season. It won’t be much of a regression. They will be favored to win the Missouri Valley Conference and start the season ranked in the top 25. If they don’t return to the NCAA Tournament for a fourth straight season, it will be a big surprise.
Such is the confidence in returners Fred VanVleet, Tekele Cotton and Ron Baker. It’s just impossible to think of that trio presiding over an unsuccessful regular season. Add in coach Gregg Marshall’s track record (averaging 29.2 wins the past five seasons) and fans are free to make big plans for next March.
However, those three need help and Wichita State will likely be in a position where it is depending more on freshmen than in past seasons.
Freshmen played little role this season. In 2013, Baker (redshirt) and VanVleet played important, but secondary, roles (Baker because of injury) until the NCAA Tournament. In 2012, freshmen played a minor role on a senior-dominated team. The 2011 NIT champions also won with juniors and seniors.
Next season, it appears freshmen must come through for the Shockers to play with their customary depth. Junior forward Darius Carter appears ticketed for the starting lineup. Sophomore Evan Wessel is a solid reserve, but needs to regain confidence in his shot to be considered a key figure going forward. His leadership and work ethic is valuable, as is his hustle, but it’s hard to play somebody who opponents don’t need to guard. Redshirt freshman Derail Green played little this season.
That appears to leave plenty of minutes for redshirt freshmen Shaq Morris and Ria’n Holland, whose prospects are detailed here. Morris can be an important contributor, if he can meet Marshall’s standards for intensity. Holland can help in the backcourt as a reserve. It’s possible for redshirts to fly a little under the radar of coaches during the season. During the spring and summer, the focus on Morris and Holland will be intense during practice.
With the departure of Cleanthony Early and Nick Wiggins (and if Carter plays more in the post), WSU has a lot of minutes available on the wing. Because Marshall always recruits in case of departure or injury, Marshall is still recruiting and the need appears to be a big man who can score.
Who wouldn’t want to play with VanVleet, Baker and Cotton? They are good scorers who can take the pressure off the bigs and spread the court. Yet, they don’t need to shoot and willingly share the ball. The Shockers can do a lot of good things with the current roster. To make a deep NCAA run, they likely need to add another experienced forward who can make the most of the guards’ talents.
Four freshmen and one junior are scheduled to join the program. I haven’t seen them play (other than video), but here’s what I’ve picked up on them.
Bush Wamukota (7-0 center) will be a defensive presence. His juco numbers indicate his offense is not polished, but it doesn’t need to be to help. If he can defend and rebound for 10-15 minutes a game, the Shockers are better off.
Rashard Kelly (6-7 forward) and Zach Brown (6-7 forward) are the two freshmen most likely to make a big impact. Both went to prep school for a year, so they’re older than the typical freshmen. Kelly is described as an excellent rebounder, and he can count on minutes if he gets the basketball for Marshall. Brown is more of a scoring wing. Both played with and against good competition in prep school, so the adjustment to college may go smoothly.
Eric Hamilton (6-8 forward) likely needs the most polishing of the freshmen. He is described as athletic and energetic.
Guard Corey Henderson Jr. (6-4) can help as a backup point guard as a freshman. He is described as versatile player (in the mold of Toure Murry) who can shoot like Clevin Hannah.
Time for the usual caveat: They’re new to NCAA basketball. It will take time, maybe more than one season, for them to get comfortable. The good news is they have Cotton, Baker and VanVleet to ease that transition. If they play hard and get to the right spots, those guards will take care of the rest.