Shockers Start AAC Play with Confidence Set on High

Wichita State freshman guard Grant Sherfield, Photo courtesy of Wichita State Shockers

Wichita State changed conferences in 2017 and things seems to keep changing every season since.

In 2017-18, the Shockers joined the American Athletic Conference with an experienced team that navigated the new cities and new rivals to go 14-4 and finish second. In 2018-19, a team with 10 newcomers struggled to a 1-6 start in American play.

This season, things are different again with conference play starting on Wednesday against East Carolina (2 p.m., ESPNU) at Charles Koch Arena.

The Shockers enter conference play 11-1 and ranked in both national polls (No. 23 in the USA Today coaches poll, No. 24 in the Associated Press). While they’re not loaded with seniors as the 2018 Shockers were, they are on a roll after non-conference victories over South Carolina, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and VCU.

“When you think about last year, we went 1-6 and it was really hard,” senior center Jaime Echenique said. “Coming to conference 11-1 is a huge help to us. We’ve got confidence. We’re ready for whatever is coming.”

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What’s coming is a series of tests that will shape the conference race and NCAA seedings.

ECU (6-7) is No. 258 in Ken Pomeroy’s national rankings. After Wednesday, the Shockers will face five straight opponents in the top 80 (including a non-conference game against No. 79 Mississippi).

The Jan. 9 game against Memphis in Wichita will be of national interest. The Tigers are No. 11 in the AP poll and No. 28 in the Pomeroy rankings (Wichita State is No. 31). Memphis, Wichita State, Houston and perhaps another team or two start conference play with strong NCAA resumes.

Memphis, even with the departure of top recruit James Wiseman, is one of the nation’s most talented teams. It boasts wins over Mississippi, North Carolina State and at Tennessee. The Tigers bring a nine-game win streak into American play. Houston, No. 27 in the Pomeroy rankings, ended non-conference play with a win over Washington in Hawaii.

In all, seven AAC schools are in the top 100 of the Pomeroy rankings with three more in the top 120. Only No. 213 Tulane and East Carolina lag far behind.

In the NCAA NET rankings, Wichita State is No. 10, followed by No. 13 Memphis, No. 40 Houston and No. 42 Temple.

Wichita State junior forward Trey Wade, Photo courtesy of Wichita State Shockers

This is all new for most of the Shockers, most of whom haven’t played in the NCAA Tournament or contended for a conference title. In October, they expected to improve, but perhaps not this much this fast against teams such as Oklahoma and VCU.

“Coming in, we were young,” guard Erik Stevenson said. “We had a pretty brutal schedule for a month or so. We could have folded in some of those game and had two, three, four losses. We showed some toughness. Now we’re 11-1. It’s good to see that young team is, for the most part, playing like an old team.”

Sophomores such as Stevenson and Jamarius Burton went through last season’s conference roller coaster. After the miserable start, the Shockers won four straight and finished American play 10-8.

Several Shockers – freshmen guards Grant Sherfield and Tyson Etienne, for example – will face conference play for the first time. It is different, the returners say. More physical. More travel. More games. More strategy as teams develop scouting reports and face off for a second time.

“Nothing is easy,” Echenique said. “They’ll figure it out. We really played a really tough schedule, where we played VCU, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State. Nothing is going to surprise them.”

Last season’s Shockers learned that defense and rebounding can carry a team. Their surge in conference play coincided with an increased focus on those area. This season’s team is already strong on defense, holding its last four opponents under 40 percent shooting. It leads the conference (and ranks 10thnationally) in Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency statistic by limiting opponents to .88 points per possession.

With defense and rebounding the foundation, the Shockers possess the hallmarks of most successful Gregg Marshall-coached teams. They are deep with balanced scoring and they will often win the battle for possessions because they rebound and limit turnovers.

“This team is a lot of fun to coach, and I really think that, if we don’t allow good to become the enemy of great, we can make a statement this year,” Marshall said. “We don’t have to wait for next year or the year after, because we’ve got 10 underclassmen. We can be good this year, if we continue to work and allow ourselves to just dream. Dream it and make it happen.”