What to know as conference play begins for Wichita State

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What to know as conference play begins for Wichita State

Wichita State guard Erik Stevenson takes a shot during their game against Southern Miss on Dec. 15, 2018 at INTRUST Bank Arena.

Wichita State guard Erik Stevenson takes a shot during their game against Southern Miss on Dec. 15, 2018 at INTRUST Bank Arena.

Joseph Barringhaus

Wichita State guard Erik Stevenson takes a shot during their game against Southern Miss on Dec. 15, 2018 at INTRUST Bank Arena.

Joseph Barringhaus

Joseph Barringhaus

Wichita State guard Erik Stevenson takes a shot during their game against Southern Miss on Dec. 15, 2018 at INTRUST Bank Arena.

Wichita State returns with fresh legs to play at Memphis for the start of conference play.

The Shockers (7-5) are returning to action with just under two weeks of rest.

The Sunflower’s Marshall Sunner dives into what to expect as WSU tips off for their second year of American Athletic Conference action.

How will the Shockers fare in the title race?

With highs of thrashing Baylor in a half of nearly perfect basketball, and lows of a record-breaking loss to Oklahoma, it’s hard to say where exactly Gregg Marshall’s ill-experienced group will fit into the title race. The Shockers were picked to finish eighth out of 12 teams.

Memphis, WSU’s first conference opponent of the new season, sports a new look, led by first-year coach Penny Hardaway. Hardaway has built a new attraction to Memphis, pulling interest for the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2019 to commit, and even pulling Marshall’s best-rated recruit, Alex Lomax, out of a commitment to instead lead the Tigers’ backcourt.

WSU enters conference play with a 7-5 record, tied for second-worst in the conference. However, WSU’s strength of schedule puts them near the top of AAC competitors. The Shockers have played inconsistently, and on the road, their play has often fared worse.

In their first true road game of the season, Virginia Commonwealth stomped on the Shockers in commanding victory. However, fouls plagued an already injury-plagued WSU rotation. Thursday’s game at Memphis should reveal a lot about what direction this WSU team goes on this year, and whether or not they can finish middle of the pack in the AAC.

Where will WSU be dancing in March?

Unless the Shockers can stun the conference and run the table, don’t expect Wichita State to be a lock in the NCAA Tournament come March.

According to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, only three AAC teams will make the big dance: Houston (6 seed), Cincinnati (8 seed), and Central Florida (10 seed).

There’s plenty of opportunity for WSU to pick up a few more quality wins and boost their resume, but as of now, the AAC conference tournament seems like the only rational way for WSU to return to the NCAA Tournament.

McDuffie will continue to boost his draft stock

Wichita State’s most consistent piece is senior Markis McDuffie.

McDuffie, the Shockers leading scorer, is averaging 18.8 points per game while grabbing 5.1 boards per contest. He ranks second in the conference in scoring average.

With the health of junior center Jaime Echenique — who is a game-time decision against Memphis — McDuffie will likely shoulder more of the offense.

Lack of depth is worrisome

Dexter Dennis (concussion) is likely to step back onto the court against Memphis on Thursday, but health and lack of depth continue to be storylines for this rotation.

Reserve forward Morris Udeze, who backs up Echenique, reportedly injured his shoulder in Wednesday’s practice.

With limited depth in the front court, Marshall has been tasked with playing three-guard lineups. Against VCU, foul trouble landed walk-on transfer Eli Farrakhan into the rotation for extended minutes.

WSU will play Memphis at 8:30 p.m. Thursday. The game will show on the CBS Sports Network.