As the new year settles in and No. 9 Wichita State prepares for its first home game as an American Athletic Conference member Thursday against Houston, the Shockers are as close to healthy as they’ve been this season.
It became official when Markis McDuffie made his season debut in late December, returning from a stress fracture in his left foot to play nine minutes against Florida Gulf Coast and 16 against Connecticut. Last season McDuffie led WSU in scoring and rebounding while averaging 25.5 minutes per game.
If McDuffie is able to regain last season’s form, he’ll likely command at least the same 25-minute average for WSU later in the season. But where do those minutes come from?
“I guess as far as problems go, that would be a good problem to have,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “Having a player the caliber of Markis McDuffie now trying to find minutes for him … that’s a good problem; it’s a problem nonetheless. Those minutes have to be subtracted from other guys who have been playing all year long. We’re trying to figure our way through it.”
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So far McDuffie’s absence has led to extended minutes for all eight players in WSU’s rotation returning from last season: Landry Shamet (+3.5 minutes), Darral Willis (+5.4), Shaquille Morris (+3.9), Conner Frankamp (+1.9), Zach Brown (+2.8), Rashard Kelly (+6.5), Rauno Nurger (+2.4), and Austin Reaves (+6.8).
What should make the transition easier is McDuffie’s versatility. He can play the small forward spot alongside two posts if Marshall wants to go big or he can play power forward alongside three-guard lineups if Marshall wants to downsize and have more shooters and ball handlers on the floor.
Before this can become a problem though, McDuffie needs to regain his conditioning. In two appearances, his time away from the court has showed: he’s missed 8 of 10 shots, including all four of his three-pointers.
“He’s nowhere near where he can be,” Marshall said. “He’s just getting his feet wet. He hasn’t played basketball for 12-14 weeks. He’s just trying to get himself in shape and acclimate himself back into the system.”
“I know everybody wants to see him score and shoot, I do too,” Kelly said. “I want to see him out there making shots, too. But we’ve got to keep things simple right now. Then he’ll start making good plays and get his rhythm back.”
It doesn’t appear one player will be cut from Marshall’s rotation; McDuffie’s minutes will be siphoned from several players. A few from Brown and Reaves on the perimeter and a few from Willis and Kelly in the post.
But who is on the court in winning time? Lately Marshall has been trusting a three-guard lineup featuring Shamet, Frankamp, and Reaves to close out games. Could McDuffie potentially fit into that crunch-time lineup? Or will Marshall cut down to two guards, so he can have McDuffie and Kelly along with another big on the floor at the same time?
There’s no definitive answer. Marshall said he will always play the matchups.
“All I do is try to win the game,” Marshall said. “I try to get the five best players who are playing the best and giving us the best chance to win at any given time on the court. It’s not perfect. There’s obviously mistakes made. Every time I make a substitution, I could have gone with this guy who could have done this or I could have gone with this guy who could have done that. You just try to play the percentages and go with your gut.”
But the three-guard lineup seems appealing with three ball handlers and shooters like Shamet, Frankamp, and Reaves. WSU has found success with that lineup, especially when defenses zone the Shockers.
“It spaces the floor and gives Landry a lot more room to operate at the top of the floor and allows him to make plays for us,” Reaves said.
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“Anytime you can have guys who can handle the basketball, pass the basketball, take care of the basketball, and make others get open shots from their ability to penetrate and kick out and push a break and spray the ball up the court to a wide-open shooter, that’s beneficial,” Marshall said. “You can never have enough guys on the court like that.”
Those lineups have become a legitimate possibility this season due to the improvement of Reaves, who has taken on a larger role and is scoring even more efficiently this season. He is shooting 44 percent beyond the arc and has connected on 19 three-pointers, while he has improved his shooting inside the arc and has made 9 of 17 two-pointers this season.
“For a young man who doesn’t have the greatest strength and he has those bad shoulders and doesn’t have the fastest feet or the best vertical leap, he gets a lot done out there,” Marshall said. “He really, really works hard for us.”
It just gives Marshall another option, something he has no shortage of right now.
“We’re just glad to have (McDuffie) back right now,” Kelly said. “He’s coming back at the perfect time. We’re in a new year, a new conference. He’s just another great piece to add.”
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall answers questions after WSU's win on Saturday. McClatchy