- Matt Cox
Key Returners: Landry Shamet, Markis McDuffie, Conner Frankamp, Zach Brown, Darral Willis Jr., Shaq Morris
Key Losses: Daishon Smith (transfer)
Key Newcomers: Semaje Haynes-Jones (JUCO), Asbjorn Midtgaard
Postseason Projection: 2 - 3 seed
Outlook: It seems like every year during the first week of March, Gregg Marshall seems to find himself at the epicenter of a heated bracketology debate: "If the Shockers don't win the MVC tournament, are they worthy of an at-large bid?". On one side of the aisle, the selection committee purists cite how Wichita lacks the signature resume wins of other major conference bubble teams, while the hoop statisticians stubbornly point to their impressive advanced numbers (full disclosure: I side with the nerds). Regardless of where you stand, the prevailing sentiment shared by almost all reasonably intelligent basketball minds can be summed up quite succinctly: Wichita State is good; really good...
The only issue is that a steadily declining Missouri Valley Conference has made life tough on the Shockers over the past 6 seasons - they've been forced to rack up gaudy league records just to be in the conversation for an at-large consideration year in and year out. So when the American Athletic Conference (AAC) decided to expand to a 12-team league this summer and reached out to Wichita as a viable candidate, no one was happier than Marshall himself. After all, it was this exact frustration - that is, the constraints of being attached to a weaker conference - that played a major role in him leaving Winthrop in the first place to come to Wichita back in 2007.
Adding to the already rosy outlook for the Shocker program, the timing for this leap in competition to the AAC couldn't be better. For the exception of Daishon Smith, Wichita brings back everyone from a team that gave John Calipari and Big Blue nation heart palpitations in last year's round of 32 tilt against Kentucky. Let's now run through the Shockers' returning pieces - warning: this might take a while...
A pair of all-conference performers in Landry Shamet (1st team) and Conner Frankamp (3rd team) will once again anchor the perimeter offensive attack. Simply saying that this duo was efficient last season would be a drastic understatement - Refer to the kenpom.com stat lines below for the dirty details, but all you need to know is that Frankamp and Shamet, respectively, ranked 16th and 18th nationally in O-Rating. If there was a more efficient backcourt in the country last season, I haven't found it:
It'd be a crime not to mention Austin Reaves, who was excellent in his freshman campaign as an off-the-bench asset, providing a scoring and playmaking jolt to the 2nd team unit. So while Frankamp's veteran leadership and proven clutch shooting should solidify his spot in the starting lineup this season, the 6'5 Reaves presents a more versatile defensive option, to go along with his multi-skilled (and rapidly improving) offensive repertoire. And even with Daishon Smith transferring, the Shockers will have no problem backfilling his spot in the backcourt rotation with one of the top JUCO prospects in the country - and former high school standout in Wichita - Samajae Haynes-Jones. Haynes-Jones has been a winner at every level of his young basketball career. He led Wichita East High School to the 2015 Class 6A state championship and lost in the NJCAA title game a year ago at Hutchinson Community College, which makes me believe he'll have no issues buying into the Shockers' "team over me" mentality.
Shifting focus to the Shocker "front court", Marshall will once again have an ensemble of versatile forwards to throw at opponents. The most perimeter-oriented of this bunch is yet another all-conference performer in Markis McDuffie, a rising star who hails from the famous St. Anthony's high-school in New Jersey. He and Shamet are the two dynamic offensive weapons that Marshall will lean on the most in late shot clock and late game situations. McDuffie can get buckets in a variety of ways and improved his scoring efficiency from all three levels of the floor as a sophomore last season.
Zach Brown will likely split minutes with McDuffie at the 3, yet another capable long range shooter who has shown he has the chops to play significant minutes in big games during the Shockers last two NCAA tournament runs.
A trio of seniors in Shaq Morris, Rashard Kelly and Darral Willis should get a relatively even share of the minutes at the 4 & 5 positions - that is, unless Marshall chooses to showcase some small ball with McDuffie or Brown at the 4. Morris in particular emerged down the stretch last season and essentially played Kentucky's Bam Adebayo to a stalemate in the Shockers' NCAA tournament loss to the Wildcats. Morris's bruising 270 pound frame allows him to carve out the space he needs to get off his silky smooth, low-post touch over longer defenders.
Relative to Morris, Kelly is certainly leaner and more athletic and does most of his damage chasing down his teammates' misses on the offensive glass. Last, but certainly not least, is Willis, an unorthodox but crafty left-hander who wasted no time asserting himself as a go-to scoring weapon off the bench in his first season of division 1 basketball. In fact, kenpom.com's Player of the Year algorithm actually pegged Willis as the Missouri Valley Conference's most valuable player last season, despite playing less than half of his teams' total minutes. Marshall was quoted last December on Willis' maturity as a two-way player:
“When [Willis] came in, he was 100-percent offensive focused,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “We’re trying to get that to 50-50 and we’re probably at 70-30. But he can put the ball in the basket and we needed that.”
Finally, if Marshall finds himself in need of some NBA-caliber size to go toe-to-toe with the blue bloods, 6'10 Rauno Nurger and 7-footer Asjborn Midtgaard are just two more pieces in his front court arsenal.
Bottom Line: On paper, trying to find a hole or weakness anywhere on this roster is seemingly impossible. Sure, some may voice concerns about the lack of star power, or the lack of a go-to alpha dog scorer, or the absence of bonafide NBA-caliber talent. But Marshall and his Shocker machine have heard this rhetoric before and quite frankly, they just don't care - and they just keep winning. Wichita is 10-5 in the NCAA tournament over the past 5 years, and 9-4 when seeded 7th, 9th, 10th and 11th. Now, armed with a juiced up schedule that features Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Charleston, along with the Maui Invitational and the AAC conference season, the Shockers will have plenty of opportunities to rack up the marquee wins needed to compete with the traditional powerhouse programs for a top seed in next year's NCAA tournament.