‘Retention is the name of the game’: Returners boost Wichita State basketball

In the NIL and transfer portal era, it has become increasingly difficult to retain cores for college basketball coaches.

That’s why Wichita State men’s basketball coach Paul Mills is particularly excited about bringing back five of the Shockers’ top-seven returners from last season’s roster, including all five recruits who signed with WSU under him.

According to a review by The Eagle, WSU is returning 51% of its scoring production from last season’s roster — accounted for primarily by Quincy Ballard, Xavier Bell, Harlond Beverly, Bijan Cortes and Ronnie DeGray III. That ranks second in the 13-team American Athletic Conference.

For an idea of how much offseason movement has occurred in the conference, Bell, who entered the offseason as the 27th-leading scorer available to return, at 11.3 points, is now the third-leading scorer back with the same team.

Mills also pointed out WSU will also return the same coaching staff, which includes associate head coach Kenton Paulino and assistant coaches Quincy Acy and T.J. Cleveland.

“Retention is the name of the game,” Mills said Tuesday on KFH’s Sports Daily. “You have to be able to keep the players that you believe in and want to be Shockers and want to be a part of what’s happening here. It helps your culture; it helps your locker room; it helps stability and it helps in execution, offensively and defensively, because they’re familiar with your vernacular. That continuity is going to pay huge dividends.”

Continuity can be a good thing, but Mills has pointed out in the past that it has to be the right continuity.

WSU finished 5-13 in AAC play last season, far away from the program’s expectations of competing for championships. So bringing back a chunk of players from that team can be a good thing, but only if the returners develop and improve to help elevate the team with them.

Mills is confident their first year together and a full offseason together will lead to that improvement.

“You walk in the locker room and ask, ‘Who’s staying?’ and seven hands go up, but you don’t really know those seven,” Mills told Sports Daily. “You see them on film, but you don’t really know who they are or what they’re about. After a year, you understand better who is in your locker room and what it’s going to take to ensure we’re positioning ourselves to win a championship. So that first year was very educational for me.”

WSU hopes the pain of losing more than half of its 13 conference games down the stretch of close games last season proves it will be a short bridge to cross to start winning them this season.

The two quickest ways in doing so is to cut down on turnovers, a category WSU ranked dead-last in during conference play last season, and to convert on free throws, a category WSU ranked second-to-last in with a 69.7% mark in conference play.

“The value of a possession, not turning the ball over and converting at the free throw line, pays huge dividends in winning close games,” Mills said on Sports Daily. “And I think we’ve addressed both of those issues in recruiting and individual development.”

All three transfers in WSU’s 2024 recruiting class should help immediately: point guard Justin Hill (Georgia), shooting guard A.J. McGinnis (Lipscomb) and forward Corey Washington (Saint Peter’s).

Hill sported the third-best assist rate in SEC play with a top-notch 2.14 assist-to-turnover ratio on top of being a career 76% free-throw shooter; McGinnis is a sharpshooter who has rarely turned the ball over and made 83% of his free throws last season; while Washington featured a superb 9.6 turnover rate (top-125 nationally) and made 77.3% of his free throws on high volume last season.

Mills also hinted frontcourt help is on the way, telling Sports Daily that two more additions to the roster will be announced soon. WSU currently has one remaining scholarship available, but NIL funds have allowed teams to become creative with walk-on additions.

After the team began summer workouts at Koch Arena this week, Mills is scheduled to speak to the local media for the first time on Thursday.