Wichita State continues rise in national recognition with win against Memphis

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Selena Favela

Wichita State's Trey Wade dunks on Memphis during the game at Koch Arena on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2019.

In front of a sold-out Charles Koch Arena crowd, Wichita State rallied together for a win that many analysts considered the most important and impactful matchup in the American Athletic Conference title race.

The Shockers were able to hold off a late comeback attempt from the No. 21 Memphis, winning 76-67.

WSU sits atop the AAC standings, a feat that seemed improbable just a season ago. The Shockers are 14-1 and 2-0 in conference play and are off to one of the best starts in school history.

At this point last year, the Shockers were in a much different place. They were 7-8 and winless through three games in league play. Freshmen were struggling to adjust to new roles and the college game as a whole. From the outside looking in, it was a dark place for the program.

From that point on, the Shockers have flipped the switch. WSU went 10-5 to wrap up regular season play with the last regular-season loss coming at the hand of these same Memphis Tigers.

This flip of the switch has helped turn around a program that was struggling for answers but ultimately kept the faith and trusted the process. The young players developed and recognized their weaknesses which have allowed this team to grow exponentially through just one offseason.

Role-players from a year ago are now playing like stars and have a supporting cast around them with contributions up and down the roster.

One case was prevalent on Thursday against the Tigers. Just a season ago, Penny Hardaway disrespected now-sophomore Jamarius Burton – and Burton was aware. The Tigers would go under ball screens and at times leave the guard wide open from beyond the arc.

This year is a different story, though. Although the Charlotte native was unable to make the Tigers pay from beyond the arc, he went on to kill them in late shot clock moments along with strong moves in the paint.

“I just put in the work this offseason, and worked on all facets of my game,” Burton said following his 16-point performance. “So when the defense disrespects me, I can make them pay for it. I feel like I did that today.”

Erik Stevenson is another player for WSU who has improved in a limited time playing for the Shockers. During his freshman season, Stevenson was mostly a spot-up shooter and struggled to find consistency from game to game.

This season is a totally different story though, as Stevenson has taken on the role of a team leader while also setting the offensive pace with 13.9 points per game. The Lacey, Washington, native has also bumped up his three-point percentage by 8% while becoming an important factor on the defensive side of the ball.

Despite playing in 23 fewer games than a season ago, so far, Stevenson is already only three steals behind last season’s total. He is also averaging two rebounds more per game all while playing eight more minutes per game than last season.

Although Stevenson has taken upon this role as the leading scorer, he said he could care less about his final stats. He’s focused on the end result.

“It’s not about me — it’s about the team; it’s about how we play,” Stevenson said. “Some nights, I’m the leading scorer. Some night, [Jamarius] is the leading scorer. Sometimes it’s Tyson (Etienne). It doesn’t matter to me. If we all have five (points), it doesn’t matter as long as we win big games and go deep in the tournament.”

The tight contest between the two teams a season ago just goes to show how different the two programs look a season later. A combined nine players played in both contests the past two seasons with both teams having somewhat of an overhaul of their rosters.

Memphis was instantly surrounded by hype after gaining the top player (James Wiseman) and recruiting class in the country while welcoming in seven new freshmen into the fold. The Tigers were tabbed as the preseason conference favorites and were instantly the team to beat in the AAC.

Meanwhile, WSU continued to fly under the radar, securing two four-star recruits who have helped bring the necessary aspects to the team. The Shockers have continued to thrive as the underdogs throughout the season.

“We are at 14 wins now, and I don’t even know when we got that (14th win) last year, so the jump has been crazy,” Stevenson said. “National recognition is cool and all, but we feel like we’ve been slept on for a while now. We feel like we could beat anybody in the country.”

Wichita State looks poised to return to the NCAA Tournament after missing it last year. The Shockers are back in the national spotlight.

WSU will have another tough conference matchup on Saturday as they travel to Hartford, Connecticut, for a contest against the UConn Huskies. If they can pull off a win on the East coast, they would be poised for a big jump in the polls on Monday. So far, six current Top-25 have lost this week, including the Tigers.