WICHITA, Kan. — What Chadrack Lufile and Kadeem Coleby had going for them last season was experience. They were men. Big, rugged, tough men who were good enough inside to help Wichita State’s basketball team win 35 straight games before a loss to Kentucky in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
But Lufile and Coleby were limited in talent. They took up space and they occasionally produced some nice numbers.
Here’s the thing about Gregg Marshall, though, that we should always remember. And shame on us if we don’t. As the Shockers progress in the Missouri Valley Conference standings and the national rankings, they attract better players.
So anyone concerned that the Shockers are going to struggle to replace Lufile and Coleby shouldn’t worry.
In Shaq Morris, Rauno Nurger, Rashard Kelly and maybe even Bush Wamukota, the Shockers have an abundance of talented big guys new to the team. And there’s starting center Darius Carter, a senior who was limited to 12 minutes during Friday night’s season-opening 71-54 win over New Mexico State because of foul trouble.
Carter, primed for a big season, still had nine points and four rebounds. But it was the 6-foot-7, 260-pound Morris who stepped up big. He had the same numbers as Carter: 12 minutes, nine points, four rebounds. And it was his first game after redshirting in 2013-14.
“It feels real good,” said Morris, who is far and away the leader in catching Marshall’s wrath over the past year.
Morris has been slow to get into the kind of shape Marshall wants. He’s been slow to adapt to the defense-first motto that Marshall and his staff preach. And he’s been slow to use his impressive bulk to grab as many rebounds as the coaches think he should grab.
“Out of every player that’s here, yeah, I definitely catch the most from (Marshall),” Morris said. “He’s been tough. So I’m just proud I can go out there and do what he’s shown me to do, execute and have a good game.”
The good news is that Morris had a bust-out kind of night. The bad news, if there is any, is that now it’s apparent Morris has the ability to do this, so expectations grow.
“I got the jitters out tonight,” Morris said. “I played better than I expected. Coach told me I have to come off the bench and play like my hair is on fire and give the team a spark. So that’s what I tried to do. Now I have to convince everyone that I can play this well consistently. And I definitely have to keep rebounding. If I do that, then my minutes will go up.”
It’s not just Marshall that has ridden Morris hard. So has junior point guard Fred VanVleet, who has not hidden his frustration with Morris’ up and down play and inability to get into prime physical shape.
VanVleet reluctantly admitted that Morris is more or less a big teddy bear and one of the most likeable guys on the team. But that’s not enough. Not close.
“It’s been frustrating with Shaq, knowing what he could be,” VanVleet said. “I just keep prodding and prodding, so me and him bump heads a lot. But I do love him to death and want the best for him.”
VanVleet loved what he saw from Morris on Friday.
In the first half, Morris fumbled an entry pass but eventually regained control of the basketball and scored.
In the second half, he had a nice up-and-under move for a bucket, showing the kind of athleticism that belies a player with his bulk.
Morris did have two turnovers and he made only one of three free-throw attempts. He’s far from refined. But he is making progress.
So are Nurger and Kelly, freshmen with big bodies and big upsides.
Kelly had a slam dunk on a follow midway through the second half that was one of the most impressive, athletic plays of the game. He finished with four points and four rebounds in 13 minutes.
Nurger appears to be struggling to relax and was not able to get into the flow against New Mexico State. But there’s no questioning how much a 6-10, 240-pound player who can shoot threes and get out on the break intrigues Marshall and Shocker fans.
And though the 6-11 Wamukota, a junior-college transfer, didn’t do much in his 11 minutes except pick up three fouls, Marshall is convinced he can be a contributor.
Veterans VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton have the perimeter covered. No worries there.
And it’s looking like the Shockers have lots of answers inside, too. They’re big, athletic and tough. And they’re young, with lots of room to grow. That’s the best part.