Pivovar: Depth fuels Wichita State's shocking season

Wichita State's Cleanthony Early celebrates with teammate Nick Wiggins in the Shockers' win at Drake last week. Early averages 13.9 points per game — tied for the team lead — after the Shockers lost three starters to injury.

Gregg Marshall has been caught off guard by Wichita State's near-perfect start to this season.

Marshall liked the players he brought in to replace five key contributors from last season's Missouri Valley regular-season championship squad. He knew he had a solid core of returning players led by forward Carl Hall and guard Demetric Williams.

But to open the season with 14 wins in 15 games, and to get the last five with three injured starters on the bench, is a little more than Marshall could have imagined even at his most optimistic moment.

“I can't sit here and tell you that I'm not surprised that we're 14-1,” Marshall said. “How we've gotten here is even more of a surprise because of the adversity that we've had to overcome.

“These guys are finding a way, and it always seems to be a different guy that is picking us up offensively. The constants, though, have been the defense and the rebounding and the toughness and the resolve to be able to find ways to win.”

The Shockers, who this week cracked the Associated Press Top 25 for the second time this season, head into Wednesday night's home game against Southern Illinois leading the league in defense and rebounding margin.

Wichita State is allowing 57.9 points per game while holding opponents to 39.0 percent shooting. The Shockers are outrebounding opponents by an average of 8.2 per game, and twice this season have finished games with 18-rebound advantages.

And their nightly dial-a-hero offense is averaging 70.3 points per game while overwhelming foes with balance.

Eight Wichita State players are scoring between 5.5 and 13.9 points per game. The Shockers have a dozen players averaging at least 1012 minutes per game.

“I think one of the most impressive stats is that they're playing 12 guys double-figure minutes and getting everything out of each and every one of them,” Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson said. “I think what Gregg is doing this year is even more impressive than what they've done in the past.”

Marshall has had to rely on that depth, as the Shockers are playing without starters Ron Baker, Evan Wessel and Hall. Baker, who was the team's top 3-point threat before suffering a stress fracture in his foot, is expected to be out until at least the beginning of February.

Wessel broke the pinky finger on his shooting hand eight games into the season. Marshall said it's likely the 6-foot-5 sophomore will have to undergo season-ending surgery.

Hall was leading the Shockers in scoring and rebounding when he broke his thumb in a mid-December practice. He underwent surgery, and the best-case scenario for his return is a Jan. 16 game against Illinois State or a Jan. 19 home showdown against Creighton.

The loss of Baker and Wessel has been softened by step-up efforts by Williams, a senior, and Tekele Cotton, a sophomore who saw plenty of action last season. Their own injuries slowed their progress in preseason practice and opened the door for Baker and Wessel to grab spots in the starting lineup.

Junior college transfer Cleanthony Early has picked up some of the production the Shockers lost when Hall went to the sidelines. The 6-foot-8 Early has averaged 16.2 points in the five games Hall has been out of the lineup and is now tied with the senior for the team scoring lead (13.9 average).

Early had 24 points Sunday as the Shockers survived a Bradley upset threat in recording a 69-63 win.

“After that game the other night, I told him, 'What I love about you is how much better you can become,'” Marshall said. “He feeds off that. He really wants to be good.

“As good as he is right now and as far as he's come, he can still get that much better. That's almost scary in a way, but it's good for us and it's good for him.”

Other players have helped fill in gaps over the past five games to keep the Shockers moving forward. Wichita State's lone loss came on the road at Tennessee, which snapped a season-opening nine-game winning streak that included victories over Virginia Commonwealth, DePaul and Iowa.

The Shockers have benefited from Marshall's willingness to give players court time. He said he's been criticized at times for playing too many guys, but no one is squawking now.

“We don't recruit backups here,” he said. “One of my mentors told me that if you recruit backups, that's what you'll end up having. We try to recruit guys that we think can start here, guys that can help you win.”

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