Shockers motivated to return to NCAA tournament

By Taylor Eldridge
The Wichita Eagle/TNS
Wichita State'S Morris Udeze (24) rebounds the ball against Drake's Issa Samake (13) during the second half in the NCAA Tournament First Four round at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana, on March 18, 2021.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - On the other side of the door sat a basketball team that had been through so much and came so far only to have their hearts ripped out in their first game in the NCAA Tournament.

Consoling college athletes right after their season ends is the most difficult speech a coach has to make. But Wichita State men's basketball coach Isaac Brown knew what had to be said after the Shockers' crushing 53-52 loss to the Drake Bulldogs in a First Four NCAA Tournament game Thursday night at Mackey Arena.

"I didn't even talk about the game," Brown said. "I said, 'Man, I'm so proud of you guys. You were picked seventh. You won the AAC. You're one of the 68 teams to make it to the tournament. I'm just proud of you.'"

This will be a season that some day the WSU players will be able to reflect back with a great deal of pride.

They overcame a mountain of adversity, from the head coach they signed to play for resigning a week before the start of the season to trying to handle a slow start caused by COVID-19 issues.

They were picked by league coaches to finish seventh and ended up winning the American Athletic Conference regular season championship outright under Brown, who earned a five-year contract following a top-10 win over Houston in February. It was an impressive accomplishment just for this team to play in the NCAA Tournament.

Brown urged the players afterward to try to remember how far they had come. WSU junior Morris Udeze, who scored a career-high 22 points, also tried to spread that message in the locker room, as the team had rallied to make sure seniors Alterique Gilbert and Trey Wade were able to get a taste of March Madness at least one time.

"I'll remember us coming together in AG's last year, T-Wade's last year," Udeze said. "We wanted to go out with a bang and make the NCAA Tournament for them and we did it. We accomplished what we wanted to accomplish. We wanted to make it far in this tournament, we didn't succeed. But we did win a conference championship and I'm proud of my guys back there in the locker room, no matter what."

For as positive as the overall season was for WSU's coaches and players, there's no denying how disappointing the ending was.

The Shockers had an eight-game winning streak snapped with a 60-59 loss to Cincinnati in the semifinals of the AAC Tournament, a game where the team allowed a late lead to slip away and struggled to make free throws and grab defensive rebounds.

It was a familiar story to how Thursday's game played out, as the Shockers allowed a 12-point lead in the second half to dissipate because it struggled to make free throws and grab defensive rebounds in critical situations.

"We didn't do a good job making free throws," Brown said. "And it wasn't that we weren't rebounding. We would get the rebound, we'd get bumped a little bit - they were the more physical team - and the ball would go out of bounds on us. We didn't do a good job on that. We had to give up at least eight of them like that. When you give up second possessions like that, the team usually makes a basket, and they did a good job."

When games are decided by a single point, tiny details like those mentioned by Brown are what separate a winner from a loser. After finding a way to prevail in so many close games throughout the season, the Shockers came up empty in their final two games of the season.

Udeze hopes the team can use it as a learning lesson for next season's run to return to the Big Dance.

"As one of the leaders of the team, I'm just telling the guys that this offseason is going to be hectic," Udeze said. "We're going to get after it and we're going to be here next year again."

In the coming days, WSU will have its end-of-season meetings with Brown and the coaching staff. If there are any transfers, they will begin to trickle out later this month. Decisions also must be made for Gilbert and Wade, seniors who have been given the ability by the NCAA to return to WSU for one more year.

"I welcome our seniors back but again those kids, they want to go play professional ball," Brown said. "I hope they get the opportunity to do that. If they want to come back, they're more than welcome. But if they decide to leave we've just got to go out and recruit two good players. We've got a lot of guys that we've been following and chasing this year. But we welcome them back and I want them back. We'll sit down and talk to them when we get back. We'll give them a week off and then we'll sit back and talk to them after that."

The Shockers could return three-fifths of their starting lineup if the seniors do decide to turn pro, as the core of Tyson Etienne (sophomore), Udeze (junior) and Dexter Dennis (junior) could make WSU competitive for an NCAA Tournament bid once again next season. WSU could also bring back its entire bench unit with promising players like freshman Ricky Council IV, Clarence Jackson and Craig Porter potentially in for expanded roles next season.

WSU could also bring back junior guard Trevin Wade and its three freshmen: center Josaphat Bilau, Jaden Seymour and Chaunce Jenkins, all of whom could benefit from a full season in WSU's system.

"I'm excited about our team coming back next year," Brown said. "Another year to work with them. Another year to get better. Next year we can concentrate on getting bigger and stronger. And in the summertime we don't have to work on all our sets because now they know them. So we can do a lot of skill development where guys can get better and better, dribbling with their left-hand, dribbling with their right. A guy that may not be a great shooter now during the summertime, he can work to become a better shooter."