Emporia St.-Wichita St. Preview

The Associated Press

(AP) -- - Wichita State embraced the mantra of ''play angry'' last season, and all that pent-up angst the Shockers brought to the floor every night carried them all the way to the Final Four.

It's going to be much harder for them to be angry this season.

The No. 16 Shockers are suddenly the toast of the town, the latest mid-major darling that beat up on college basketball's blue bloods on the sport's biggest stage. They should be all smiles as the heavy favorites to win the Missouri Valley Conference after the departure of Creighton for the Big East, and just maybe make another March run to remember this season.

They'll open the season by hosting Division II Emporia State on Saturday.

''Nine guys played in the Final Four that are returning,'' Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said, ''so expectations will be different than they were last year.''

Indeed, the Shockers know they'll get everyone's best shot after piling up 30 wins last season and making it to the national semifinals, where they lost to eventual champion Louisville.

Along the way, 6-foot-8 forward Cleanthony Early stamped himself as a legitimate NBA prospect by scoring 24 points and pulling down 10 rebounds against the Cardinals. Some thought he might declare for the draft, but he opted instead to return for his senior season.

''I'm thinking a lot about this season right now, doing what I need to do, being productive, helping these guys,'' Early said. ''Hopefully the NBA will still be there.''

Early will be joined by sweet-shooting Ron Baker, another NCAA tournament star, and former top-100 recruit Fred VanVleet to form one of the nation's most dynamic backcourts.

''The position I'm in now at Wichita State isn't something I envisioned when I was a young kid,'' Baker said. ''I'm proud of what we've accomplished here and hopefully we can build on it.''

Marshall said several NBA scouts who've found their way to Wichita, Kan., to check on Early have walked away gushing about Baker, who was a 3-point machine in the postseason.

''Everybody is intrigued,'' Marshall said. ''Now it's up to them. They have the attention of those folks. They have the stage to perform. Now it's a matter of doing it consistently.''

Creighton and Wichita State had built quite the rivalry over the past decade, but the Bluejays' defection leaves the Shockers as the class of the Valley. Indiana State returns four starters and should challenge for the league crown, but the road to the title will likely go through Koch Arena.

''You just have to play the schedule as it's put in front of us,'' Marshall said, ''and I think there will be surprise teams in the Valley to give us great competition.''

The Shockers would be wise to follow that old wives' tale to keep the doctor away this season. Baker missed a good chunk of last year with a stress fracture in his left foot, and starting guard Evan Wessel took a medical redshirt after season-ending surgery on a broken finger. The Shockers have depth, but their strength is in their top eight.

Two of the Shockers' biggest losses to graduation were forward Carl Hall and point guard Malcolm Armstead, both of whom provided emotional leadership. Hall in particular was the energy guy for Wichita State, scrapping after rebounds and loose balls. ''All our seniors, they went out as winners,'' Marshall said, ''and now we have to have another group of seniors to evolve as leaders, and I think they can do that.''

The Shockers have plenty of guys ready to step into the spotlight, including Kadeem Coleby, who averaged 9.6 points and 4.9 rebounds two years ago for Louisiana-Lafayette. Darius Carter, one of the top junior college recruits in the country, will also compete for time at forward. ''You're obviously going to play seven, eight minimum, but we've gone up to 10, 11, 12 in the past,'' Marshall said. ''You'd better have some depth.''

Emporia State (13-14) has already seen one top 10 opponent up close, getting routed 87-51 at No. 8 Oklahoma State in an exhibition game last Friday. Paul Bunch had nine points and nine rebounds for the Hornets, who were undone by a 17-0 first-half run from the Cowboys and trailed by as many as 26 in the first half.

The Hornets committed 25 turnovers, a big concern for coach Shaun Vandiver.

Wichita State had nine steals, forced 18 turnovers and held Oklahoma Baptist to one field goal in the first half and 25 percent shooting overall in a 73-29 rout last Sunday.

Wichita State has won the last seven matchups with Emporia State, the most recent an 82-43 victory in 2011.

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