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Non-Conference Preview: After stable offseason, Wichita State wants to remain an AAC threat

Amid a coaching scandal and a pandemic, Isaac Brown and the Shockers exceeded expectations. Now, with four starters back, they’ll pose a stiff test when they visit Columbia.

NCAA Basketball: AAC Conference Tournament - Cincinnati vs Wichita State Ben Ludeman-USA TODAY Sports

If any candidate for a coaching vacancy had an argument as compelling as Isaac Brown’s, I’d like to hear it.

Last November, a structural assessment of Wichita State hinted at collapse. Earlier in the spring, eight players entered the transfer portal. Later, a university investigation substantiated claims that coach Gregg Marshall subjected players to mental and physical abuse. By November, Marshall was out. Brown, formerly Marshall’s lead assistant, was in. And if that wasn’t enough, there was a global pandemic raging.

All he did was lead the Shockers to the American Athletic Conference title in the regular season and at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. So, when the school removed the interim tag from Brown’s title, it was more than a little deserved.

This past offseason brought a stark contrast: quiet stability. Alterique Gilbert and Trey Wade were the only notable departures. Otherwise, the Shockers return six of their top eight scorers, including Tyson Etienne, Morris Udeze, and Dexter Dennis. Any churn came at the bottom of Brown’s roster, and accounting shows the program retained 70 percent of its scoring, 65 percent of its rebounding, and 51 percent of its assists.

Sometimes, we overrate continuity, but for Wichita State, there’s a premium. To not only endure but thrive under last season’s circumstances is a testament to the program’s culture. The players and coaches who nurtured are back, and that matters.

Within the AAC, Memphis and Houston figure to be luminaries. But if we learned anything, doubting Brown and the Shockers comes with peril.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Drake at Wichita State Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Head Coach | Isaac Brown | Second Season

What does Brown have in store for an encore?

After seven seasons in Wichita, he’s well-versed in the program’s history, and he’s tried to respect its roots while moving on from a fractious period. As The Athletic’s CJ Moore detailed ($), Brown called up players he coached within the program and thanked for support, and he’ll dial up any number of peers to pick their brains on scheme and player management. Once promoted, he started shedding pounds because he forgot to eat. Scouting opponents meant watching up to eight full games.

Suffice it to say, Brown’s a grinder. In 18 seasons as an assistant coach, he’s made stops at Louisiana Tech, Arkansas State, Arkansas, and South Alabama. Before that, he spent the late ‘90s leading Pearl River Community College and Northwest Florida State College. Five months before he replaced Marshall, his peers considered him the second-best assistant in the AAC, behind only Kellen Sampson at Houston.

Like a lot of assistants, Brown needed a break. And while the situation in Wichita isn’t how he envisioned it arriving, it’s here now. Moving down a seat, however, didn’t usher in an overhaul. As a result, the Shockers’ coaching staff remains unchanged. There’s also value in the ethos Marshall — for all of his faults — tried to create: Play Angry. How Brown delivers that message and instills that mentality will be the starkest change.

At Marshall’s peak, which ran from 2012 to 2018, the program finished lower than 26th in adjusted defensive efficiency just once (2018), and when it did, it was offset by the nation’s fourth-best offense. On top of that, Wichita State’s defensive rebounding rate ranked in the top 10 nationally eight times during Marshall’s tenure.

Brown’s heavy lifting comes at the offensive end of the floor. Last season, the program finished 65th in adjusted efficiency. That’s respectable. It was also the best performance in three years. That means hunting down more skill, particularly guards who can create off the bounce instead of simply spotting up off the ball.

Series History | Missouri leads 4-0

Last season’s visit to the Roundhouse was the first time the Tigers and Shockers clashed since 1951. Back then, MU won two games in two days in Columbia. Box scores are obviously tough to track down.

You remember what happened last season, though. Racked by a COVID-19 outbreak, the Shockers were undermanned in a 72-62 loss, while MU moved to 3-0 on the season. While Xavier Pinson struggled, Mark Smith tallied up 19 points, while Dru Smith and Kobe Brown each added 14 for the Tigers. Behind an 11-0 run, MU stretched its lead to 16 points, and Wichita State never pared it back to single digits over the final 10 minutes.

At the time, it was worth wondering how much value the outcome might have when March arrived. Wichita State’s tenacity was evident. But the question was whether they had the depth and grit to hold up. Yet the Shockers wound up finishing 70th in the NET rankings – and giving MU a Quad 1 win on its NCAA tournament resume.

NCAA Basketball: Wichita State at Houston John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

What about the team now?

Like many of his peers, Brown says he wants to play fast and roll out positionless lineups. He might have the backcourt personnel to make progress on that front. Etienne, a 6’2 junior, was the AAC’s co-player of the year, and he’ll likely operate the point this season. It would also help if Dennis’ hot-shooting from long range – 44.7 percent over the final nine games – carried over. If that translates, the 6-foot-5 junior might be a facsimile of a 3-and-D option. That said, Brown will also look for Dennis to create off the bounce.

Ricky Council IV, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, might be the most intriguing piece on the roster. Averaging 7.1 points and 3.4 rebounds helped him land on the AAC’s all-freshmen team. But his 44.4 percent clip from 3-point range is what perks up interest. Already long and rangy, Council might typify the direction Brown wants to take his rotation.

Given Wichita State’s style, it was stunning to see the Shockers finish 332nd in defensive rebounding, per KenPom. The Shockers were slightly undersized, but Udeze, a 6’8 senior, will need to be better at mopping up misses. Doing so will complement the 10.3 points he averaged and the 66.2 percent he shot inside the arc during AAC play.

Where Wichita State faces potential concerns is depth. A 6’7 forward, Clarence Jackson, posted five points in 13.9 minutes per game last season, but he’s the only other rotational piece to stick around. Craig Porter, a 6’2 senior, saw his season undercut by multiple stints in quarantine, but he should backup Etienne at lead guard. A pair of freshmen – Jalen Ricks and Isaac Abidde – fill in behind Udeze, but keep an eye on Joe Pleasant, a grad transfer from Abilene Christian. While Pleasant is inclined to play on the block, he can also step out and knock the occasional face-up jumper.

As we sit here today, Bart Torvik forecasts the Shockers to finish 56th in his model. If that projection holds up in the NET rankings, MU has an opportunity to pick up a solid Quad 2 victory when the teams meet up in Columbia. It also falls in a crucial four-game stretch for the Tigers, between two games at the Jacksonville Classic and a stiff road trip to Atlantic Sun Conference favorite Liberty.

Picking off Florida State, should the Tigers see them in Florida, might be a tall order. However, netting two wins against SMU, Wichita State, and Liberty would serve as a decent hedge before a brutal stretch that sees MU play Kansas, Utah, Illinois, and Kentucky over 11 days in December. And if the Tigers were to exceed expectations, which cast this season as a reset, come March, a win over the Shockers would certainly help burnish a tournament resume once again.