Fortune favors the bold, abandons the timid, and seems to enjoy kicking Gregg Marshall square in the backside. Over the span of a few days in December, Wichita State lost its leading scorer (Carl Hall) to a broken thumb; arguably its best 3-point ace (Ron Baker) to a stress fracture in the foot; and another outside threat (Evan Wessel) to a broken pinky finger.
Three starters, kaput before Christmas. Wonderful.
“I likened it to my team (as), ‘OK, last night, we had three guys in an auto accident,'” recalls Marshall, coach of the 15-1 Shockers, Missouri Valley Conference contenders again despite a freakish slew of injuries. “The good news is, no one was killed, no one was maimed, and they’re all going to recover.”
Wessel last played at Air Force on December 2; Hall and Baker have been out of action since a loss at Tennessee on December 13. But get this: Over its last eight contests, Wichita is 7-1 and, more impressively, 4-0 in the MVC, matching Creighton’s ballyhooed Bluejays at the top of the standings, dribble for dribble.
The Shox take a No. 23 national ranking into Evansville on Sunday — “It’s like going to the dentist, playing them,” Marshall says of the feisty Aces — where they’ll be aiming for the best start to a Wichita season since the 1953-54 squad opened at 16-1.
“So what we did (with the roster) was just run them in waves — (one group) plays hard for 4-6 minutes, then another (group) plays hard for 4-6 minutes,” Marshall explains. “The better players played 24 minutes and the other guys played 15-16 minutes. We’re going 10-deep; we did it last year as well.
“It’s been very beneficial, because you lose three of your top five, now, and players 10-11-12 (in the rotation) become 7-8-9. So that’s what happened. It didn’t hit us be surprise — well, it did hit us by surprise, but it didn’t shock our world to the point where we had to throw guys that had never played into the fray.”
Some coaches would panic; Marshall just tweaked. The Shockers have a dozen players who average at least 10 minutes per appearance — so with three key men down, the coaching staff decided to simply stretch out the load for the rest.
That’s translated into more extended court time for 7-foot center Ehimen Orukpe, who’s averaged 6.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and the 3.8 blocks over the past five games. Meanwhile, nimble forward Cleanthony Early, a 6-8 transfer, picked up the baton on the scoring side. The New York native’s netted 20 points per tilt since December 20, including a 39-point night last Wednesday against Southern Illinois — the most by a Shockers player in a game since Xavier McDaniel scored 44 against West Texas State in 1985.
“If you had asked me how many points he had at the end of the game, I would’ve said 24 or something,” Marshall says of Early. “It was so effortless and easy … (he) just scores in so many different ways, and so quickly.”
In fact, Early has been so stellar as of late, that Marshall even got into a friendly debate with assistant Chris Jans the other day as to who might be Wichita’s best player in February: Cleanthony or Carl?
Either way, the coach joked, it’s a nice problem to have. Especially when you consider that Hall — a 6-8 bruiser who could return for January 19’s throwdown with the Jays in Wichita — was one of the few certainties among a collective that had already lost its five top scorers from last year’s MVC championship squad.
A hodge-podge of newbies and kids (seven of the 14 players on the Shockers’ roster are freshmen or sophomores) have bought into Marshall’s physical, take-no-prisoners approach to defense, heading into the weekend tops in the Valley in scoring defense (59.1 points per contest) and field-goal percentage defense (39.6). Marshall is the reigning MVC Coach of the Year, and yet, at the midway point of the campaign, this effort might be his most accomplished to date.
“I’m so immersed in it right now, it’s hard for me to see it from an outsider’s perspective,” Marshall says. “(If) this continues, and we’ve still got another half a season to play — wow, it would be a very gratifying season.”
And just imagine what the Shockers, who already have wins over VCU and Iowa under their collective belts, could pull off with a full set of bodies. Wessel’s out of the picture after season-ending surgery on his finger, but Baker is reportedly on track for a late-January or early-February return.
“You’re almost numb as a coach and coaching staff — you’re going, ‘You can’t be hurt,'” Marshall says. “The odds of it happening like it did are very slim.
“But you just deal with it … inside you may be disappointed, and even upset, but you can’t have that permeate your program and your staff. You have to go and say, ‘OK.’ Because young people are very resilient, and every single one of those guys that are recruited on scholarship think that they’re very good players. You then have to just plug them in.”
The Shockers haven’t had time to curse their luck. They’ve been too busy trying to make their own.