by Danny Hazan / @DeeHaze24
If you walk into Wichita State’s locker room you won’t catch a waft of a nasty funk coming from players’ socks they’ve worn every game—and haven’t washed—during the 20-game win streak to open this season.
You might not even hear the same songs an hour before tipoff in each player’s headphones. There are no crazy superstitions, gimmicks or secrets that the players have relied on to drive the Shockers’ success.
For a program that’s won at least 25 games the last four years, and coming off a Final Four appearance a season ago, its key to winning—and current top-five ranking in the country—has been strictly dictated on the court.
“We’re all creatures of habit at some level,” sophomore point guard Fred VanVleet said. “But no one has anything crazy, that I know of. We just keep the same routines and understand that it’s basketball, and when we get out there and the ball gets tipped none of that other stuff matters.”
The Shockers made their mark on the Tournament last year by beating the top two seeds in the West region, Gonzaga and Ohio State, before falling to the Midwest region’s No. 1 seed and eventual national champion Louisville in the national semifinals.
Tenacity on defense and the glass, and a balanced offense filled with unselfish players possessing a variety of skill sets, has been the main recipe for coach Gregg Marshall wherever he’s been and certainly in his seven seasons at Wichita State.
What has changed in the wake of last year’s run is the chance the Shockers have to prove they’re no fluke in regards to being a Final Four contender and as formidable of a team as the schools that have already been established as perennial powers.
“Our mentality is just to get better individually and as a team each and every day, like it has been every year I’ve been a coach,” Marshall said. “We work hard in practice and we want to try and continue to be a successful program—not a one-hit wonder. Our goal is to win as many games to put ourselves in a position to go dancing—and advance.
“Last year was gone once we hung the banner and got the championship rings. Now it’s, what are we going to do this year? How are we going to sustain it?”
The 20-0 start, 7-0 in the Missouri Valley Conference, is a flawless start but obviously the Shockers will face several tests between now and when the ultimate test comes a couple months from now once the Tournament begins.
VanVleet echoed his coach’s sentiments in that this season can be considered an extension of last. Not just in the win-loss column, but in the efforts to make sure the Shockers are not overlooked when running down a list of the best programs in the country.
“It obviously gave us a lot of outside attention and respect that we weren’t getting last year,” VanVleet said. “But it gave us a lot of confidence that we can play in those games coming down the stretch. It propelled us and stabilized us as a program. We want to be a national contender, and a good team year-in, year-out—like the big-time programs that we’ve come to know and respect. I think we’re on our way to doing that. Valley schools and conferences like this will always get respect, but it’s always relative to the conference. I think last year showed we can play with anybody on a neutral floor.
“It eliminated the star-struck experience, and the happy-to-be-there moment for us. We’ve already done all that and that’s something no one can take that away from us. It’s incumbent upon the guys that’s been there to carry the new guys along and show them the ropes. We have confidence, and I think that experience is underrated. It’s a long game, and a lot of plays have to be made, and really, really hard to do what we did last year.”
Shockers senior Cleanthony Early, redshirt sophomore Ron Baker, junior Tekele Cotton and VanVleet all were instrumental in last year’s regular and post-season success. Junior college transfer forward Darius Carter, big men Chadrack Lufile and Kadeem Coleby, 6-6 wing Nick Wiggins and 6-5 guard Evan Wessel have all figured into Wichita State’s rotation this year helping the undefeated start.
During a season in which a team hasn’t lost, identifying areas of weakness could prove challenging. But no one in the Shockers locker room is content.
The 20-0 mark hasn’t come without its challenges, especially on the road at Missouri State on January 11, in which the Shockers trailed 42-24 at half. Wichita State buckled down and escaped with a 72-69 overtime win, and Marshall said games like those might be necessary to prepare the Shockers for the inevitable future tests down the road not only the Valley but in the Big Dance.
“You can say maybe we needed it, but it certainly wasn’t any fun when we were going through it,” Marshall said. “They put a number on us in the first half. It was a heck of a lot of work. We usually don’t give up 42 points in a half, but we did, and then things started evening out when we started defending better. It took a lot of energy, passion and toughness to come back. So I guess you can say now that was a good thing.”
Early led the Shockers with 22 points and 14 boards in the win over Missouri State, and the 6-8 New York native leads Wichita State with team-high averages in scoring (15.9) and rebounding (6.6). His inside-out game on offense has improved every season, and ability to guard a few different positions has been valuable to the squad.
Marshall said Early is a reflection of the rest of the guys on the Shockers—talented, but still an unfinished product.
“They’re all very unselfish,” Marshall said. “They’re all team-oriented guys, and we like guys that want to win and that are into the betterment of the program. That’s not to say we don’t have really talented players because Cleanthony is averaging 16 points a game and on a lot of teams that could be 23.
“His biggest challenge is staying engaged on both ends in every aspect of the game. He’s gotten better at that. He’s still has a stride or two to make, but he’s come a long way.”
The sharp-shooting Baker (13.1 points per game) also possesses the skill and athleticism any team would look for in a 2-guard, while the lockdown defender Cotton (9.5 points per game) continues to expand his offensive arsenal – including one of the posters of the year in the Shockers’ win over Illinois State January 22.
VanVleet (12.7 points per game, 5.2 assists per game, team-high 38 steals) has been the engine that’s made the balanced Shockers go this year in his first season as a starter.
“He’s the consummate floor general,” Marshall said. “He’s a leader and a winner. He does what it takes to win—he’ll dive on the floor, strip a driver in the gap, he has great hands and can score from the perimeter. He can drive it but he’s a pass-first point guard. So he just does a little bit of everything to help you win.”
Also helping the Shockers win has been their collective disposition on the floor.
Wichita State has embodied the slogan, ‘Play Angry,’ as its identity on the court. The natural chip on the shoulders of the players who weren’t recruited by the bigger programs, and the collective chip as a program was there because of the perception of not getting the respect due to them.
But since last year’s run, and because of this year’s start, the Shockers top-five national ranking along with all the national media attention for the program and some of its players has been welcomed respect by not only the Shockers fan base, but by Marshall and VanVleet.
“Why would you not enjoy it?” Marshall said. “We’ve tossed the ball up (20 times) and we’ve won them all. Why would you not enjoy that? That’s what we do—we love the game and the objective is to win.”
VanVleet, who has played his way into the conversation as the best point guard in the NCAA, has embraced the attention but continues to search for ways to make sure that angry edge he and his teammates play with remains in place.
“We accept it and we enjoy it, but we find anything we can to keep that chip on our shoulder,” VanVleet said. “There are still doubters and people who don’t believe. We still have a lot of people to prove wrong, and personally as a player I do as well. For every 10 people that love you, there is someone that hates you. We find stuff to keep us focused. We’re not even playing our best basketball right now, so that’s enough to keep us focused and hungry.”
So as the Shockers continue to sharpen their craft as they strive to play better than they already have, obviously no one in the Valley is going to roll over for them based on the undefeated record and top-five ranking. In fact, for those Valley teams who’s tourney hopes are already all but dashed, a game against the Shockers may be similar to their National Championship according to VanVleet.
That’s why he says the Shockers aren’t looking ahead to their unfinished business in the Dance.
“Last year with our team, we had three-game losing streaks,” VanVleet said. “We got beat by Evansville twice, and lost to Northern Iowa on the road, so we understand that anyone can be beaten on any given night. When we go to another team’s school, it’s sold out and packed. They do red-outs, white-outs and whatever else and they play their best basketball trying to beat us because if they win it will make their season. So going forward we get just as hyped as they do for these games.”
The Shockers play at Drake on Saturday and Marshall said the key to winning that one, and every remaining game on their schedule, isn’t any secret.
“I just think we need to continue to defend and rebound the way we have in the past, and the way we’re doing for the most part this year,” Marshall said. “We have to do it consistently. Those things have to be really good on a consistent basis, and that will give us a chance against whoever we play.”