Cougars open new year with Shockers to test strength
While everyone else was busy ringing in the New Year, the men’s basketball team has started conference play 2-0 with wins over the USF Bulls and Temple Owls. The team is now hitting the road for arguably their toughest conference opponent: the Wichita State Shockers.
The Cougars will arrive in Wichita, Kansas, Thursday to face the Shockers, ranked No. 9 in the AP Poll and winners of three straight games. For head coach Kelvin Sampson’s team, this is a team they need to be able to beat on a regular basis if they want to win conference and qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
Sampson’s squad has matched their start from a year ago, winning 12 games by Jan. 4, and they have accomplished that thanks to consistency from the squad. Redshirt senior guard Rob Gray Jr. has continued to be the team’s leading scorer, but the arrival of junior guard Corey Davis Jr. has given Sampson a second scoring threat.
Davis Jr.’s presence has allowed the Cougars to continue to move the ball and score often even when Gray is not on the court. Combined with the fact redshirt senior forward Devin Davis is having a career year and the team is performing well in all areas of the game. Davis notably has 95 rebounds already, he had 105 all of last year.
Davis will arguably be the most crucial as the Shockers are the sixth best rebounding team in the country. The Cougars need Davis and the big men to get the rebounds where they can in order to prolong their possessions and keep the ball away from the Shockers.
Sampson’s squad may have looked past the disappointment of falling short in the postseason last year, but a win against a team like Wichita State would go miles in terms of giving them the confidence to win big games this year.
The Shockers have become a team that is perennially qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. Head coach Gregg Marshall has seen his team qualify for the tournament in each of the last six seasons. With his team currently sitting at 11-2 the signs are pointing that this season will be no different.
Marshall has accomplished this due to his ability to retain players. Whereas major schools like Kentucky and Kansas see top athletes depart early to the NBA, players like Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker stayed for all four years of eligibility. Both are currently playing in the NBA.
Landry Shamet is the next in line of Marshall’s protégée’s. Shamet was named the Missouri Valley Conference Freshman of the Year as he led the Shockers to a conference title and only fell three points short of a victory against the Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA Second Round.
Now a sophomore, Shamet was named to the Preseason Naismith Trophy watchlist, the award given to the top college basketball player. Given that he has led the Shockers in points in four of their last six games it is clear he is still their top scoring threat.
Early in the season the Cougars are 2-1 in true road games, the loss being at LSU. The Shockers have yet to lose at Charles Koch Arena and the 10,000 plus that attend regularly will not make it easy for the Cougars. But if they come out with a win, Sampson’s team will have proven to all that they can go far this season.