Looking ahead: Wichita State Shockers

It’s never too early to start to look ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 that could make noise on the national stage. Today: the Wichita State Shockers.

Four years ago, Ron Baker was a walk-on and Fred VanVleet was a previously lightly recruited point guard.

And now they are partners in what arguably will be one of the best backcourts in college basketball.

Their career arcs -- their stories, really -- are essentially the arc and story of the Wichita State Shockers, an epic and unexpected rise from entertaining mid-major darling to legit college basketball power.

From unexpected Final Four contenders as freshmen, to an undefeated run and No. 1 seed as sophomores, to a rebuild that included an upset of rival Kansas as juniors, Baker and VanVleet have steered the ride to the Shockers’ excellence.

And now it’s time for the curtain call.

Not long after their coach, Gregg Marshall, spurned Alabama's offer, Baker and VanVleet opted to stay put too, eschewing an early entry to the NBA and likely spots in the second round for a senior season at Wichita.

Their reward -- as well as the bounty for the Shocker faithful -- should come this season, as Wichita State will be on most preseason Top 10 lists and a serious contender not just for a Final Four, but a national championship.

There are a lot of reasons to be excited, not the least of which is that Marshall, who keeps getting offers from other schools, keeps deciding to stay put. This year he turned down the Crimson Tide and instead signed a seven-year deal with Wichita State for $3 million a year.

Not to undervalue what the coach does, but the fact is Marshall can only do so much. The real reasons that Wichita State is expected to be so good are Baker and VanVleet. Together they averaged 27 points, nine rebounds and nearly eight assists per game last year with Baker serving as the sure-thing shooter and VanVleet as the playmaker. Aside from losing, the duo has nearly experienced it all in the arc of their college basketball careers.

Well, OK, a national championship …

What the immediate future holds: If the picture for Wichita State’s future isn’t abundantly clear yet, let’s spell it out.

The Shockers are going to be very good.

Baker and VanVleet are the obvious cornerstones, but the pieces around them are equally good.

Evan Wessel started 31 of 32 games, and though he averaged just 4.2 points per game, the rising senior earned unforgettable status by knocking down four 3-pointers in the win against Kansas in the second round.

The biggest question marks going from last season to this season were replacing both Tekele Cotton and Darius Carter. The two ranked as the third- and fourth-leading scorers, respectively, with Carter doing a yeoman’s amount of work on the boards.

No doubt the Shockers will miss the experience and grit of that pair, but they have the pieces to replace them. Anton Grady ranks as one of the better graduate transfers in the lengthy pool of immediately eligible players, a former all-Horizon defensive team selection who averaged 14.3 points and 7.9 rebounds for Cleveland State a year ago. Grady certainly helps ease the loss of Carter, especially in the rebounding department.

Conner Frankamp isn’t the same kind of player as Cotton, but the KU transfer will be instant offense when he’s eligible on Dec. 12. The one-time top recruit with a great shooting touch will help replace the points Cotton represented.

As for Cotton’s defensive tenacity, that’s the real trick. In Shaq Morris and Zach Brown, Marshall hopes he has some answers. Morris earned Missouri Valley all-freshman honors, and his value and production increased as the season went on. Brown, meantime, showed a sweet shooting touch -- 11-for-26 -- on 3s, and Marshall thinks he’s the sort of player whose defense will improve as his offensive confidence goes.

Those two will have solid re-enforcements from the Shockers’ incoming freshman class. Eric Hamilton actually played with Wichita State last summer before opting for a prep year at Sunrise Christian Academy, so he’s already slightly versed in the Shockers’ ways. Markis McDuffie, an ESPN 100 player out of Bob Hurley’s St. Anthony High School also shores up the forward position, while Landry Shamet is a solid shooting guard out of Kansas City.

How the rising sophomores respond to their increased workload and how the incoming freshmen fit in, certainly, will go a long way toward ensuring Wichita State realizes some lofty expectations.

But for four years now, the growth of Shockers hoops has been in lockstep with the rising careers of Baker and VanVleet.

Why should anything change now?