Wichita State will begin the 2015-16 college basketball season without Ron Baker or Fred VanVleet on its roster for the first time in four seasons.
During those four seasons, Baker and VanVleet led the Shockers to a Final Four, a 35-game winning streak, three Missouri Valley Conference titles, three conference regular-season championships, and a school-record 13 NCAA Tournament wins in four trips.
Talk about a tough act to follow.
Replacing Baker and VanVleet will be impossible, but the cupboard isn’t exactly bare for head coach Gregg Marshall. Despite losing the program’s two best players of all time to graduation, the Shockers still return enough talent to win the MVC and make another March run.
They’ll just look a little different this season.
Unlike past seasons, the team’s experience and strength will lie in its frontcourt, starting with the duo of junior center Shaq Morris and sophomore forward Markis McDuffie.
After struggling with inconsistency the past two seasons, Morris will now get his time to shine as the team’s most experienced player. Morris has flashed his potential in the past with his athleticism, soft hands and scoring touch, but must stay out of foul trouble this season in order to make an impact.The team needs him to become a steady contributor now that Baker and VanVleet are gone.
Alongside Morris will be reigning MVC Freshman of the Year Markis McDuffie. He can play either forward position, and has the length and athleticism to become a star in the MVC, especially if he can become a more consistent threat from outside — he shot 31.5 percent from deep as a freshman, but his percentage dropped to 27.3 percent in conference play.
This season, McDuffie should take the next step and become an all-conference-type player for the Shockers. Paired with Morris’ experience, the pair will give the team a formidable duo that has the potential to wreck havoc on the MVC. However, as good as Morris and McDuffie are, the team still has questions in the backcourt, such as who will replace Baker and VanVleet.
The Shockers need big seasons from a couple of key backcourt players — junior Connor Frankamp and freshman Landry Shamet — in order to make up for the loss of Baker and VanVleet.
Frankamp arrived at Wichita midway through last season as a big-name transfer from Kansas with a reputation as a long-range shooter. He didn’t start any games, but averaged 17.1 minutes per game and 6.1 points per game as a key reserve. His role will be bigger this season, as he will be expected to provide scoring from the perimeter.
Shamet arrived at Wichita last season as the Shockers’ highest-rated recruit in nine seasons, and played in three games (starting one) before a stress fracture ended his season. Still, Shamet showed enough promise between the preseason and those three contests to draw comparisons to Baker. If Shamet can come back healthy this season and pick up where he left off, he and McDuffie could provide the Shockers with the team’s next young talented core to build around for the next few seasons.
Even though Baker and VanVleet are gone, expectations remain the same for the Shockers: win the MVC, and advance in the NCAA Tournament. In order to meet those expectations, young players like McDuffie and Shamet must embrace larger roles, and — just like Baker and VanVleet did during their sophomore seasons following the Final Four run — take their games to the next level.
If that happens, it will be business as usual for the Shockers.