First-place Shockers putting turbulent start to season well behind them

Wichita State's Trey Wade (left) and Tyson Etienne celebrate the Shockers' win over Houston on Thursday.
AP

WICHITA, Kan. — Wichita State headed north to South Dakota to open its season with an interim coach a week on the job, a roster almost completely turned over from last season and almost no expectations when a wave of positive COVID-19 tests forced the Shockers to turn right around and head home.

Turns out it merely delayed the start of a season nobody will soon forget.

Isaac Brown’s revamped bunch is not only cruising along at 13-4 and 9-2 in the American Athletic Conference, the Shockers jumped into first place Thursday night with a 68-63 win over sixth-ranked Houston. It was their eighth victory this season by five points or fewer, and their highest-ranked victim at home since beating No. 2 Louisville in 1967.

Suddenly, a program that began the season in turmoil is on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.

“I’m just proud of these guys,” Brown said. “You know, with everything when I first got this job, we told these kids, ‘Just trust us,’ and we’re going to give them 110% every day, and all those guys trust the process.

“They just basically stepped up and have just been doing a tremendous job.”

Tyson Etienne and Alterique Gilbert scored 16 points apiece in the win over the Cougars, their latest effort in making fans forget about the seven players who bolted from the program from the end of last season to the beginning of this one.

Just like the rest of the Shockers have made folks forget — at least at some level — about Gregg Marshall, the winningest coach in program history, who agreed to a buyout just weeks before the start of the season. It was Marshall who led Wichita State to the Final Four and helped the school gain acceptance from the AAC, but left when former players accused him of physical and verbal abuse going back several years.

Brown, his longtime assistant, has brought a sense of calm and confidence as the interim coach, while former SEC coach Billy Kennedy — brought on to help before the season — has provided another valuable voice in the locker room.

“To be honest with you, I’ve been overcome with, you know, emotions,” said Etienne, “and I try to keep my emotions in check, so it’s kind of hard to even put into words. I’m just so grateful to be a part of this moment, so grateful to be a part of this team.

“I was saying it from beginning of the game (against Houston): ‘Let’s make history.’ At halftime I was saying, ‘Let’s make history,’ and the guys followed and we did just that. It’s an amazing feeling to do that.”