Recruiting is a top priority of virtually every college basketball coach, and in the Missouri Valley, no one does it better than Wichita State's Gregg Marshall. Now that the Shockers are the dominant team in the league, that job may be a little easier, but there is no denying that Marshall can find talented players, help them get better, then then go find some more.
The gap between the Shockers and everyone else in the Valley seems to widen every season. Their 105-21 league record over the past seven seasons, along with their notable NCAA Tournament runs, clearly make WSU the team all other MVC schools aspire to be.
But do they have a chance?
When you compare recruiting hauls, you can argue that Bradley has put together two straight solid recruiting classes. You can suggest that Illinois State collects athletes like Hillary Clinton gathers super delegates, but you can't ignore what verbalcommits.com reports as the best recruiting class in the MVC. And if we're to trust their evaluations, the scores aren't even close.
Of roughly 50 new players joining Valley teams, only 16 of them have received verbalcommits score above two stars. Four of those players are Shockers. One player not counted in that list is perhaps last season's highest rated player, four-star recruit Landry Shamet, who missed all but three games last season due injury, and starts his freshman season all over again this fall.
There are other highly rated players coming to the Valley this season. Bradley landed 6-10 power forward Koch Bar and 6-8 transfer Alex Foster who arrive to the Hilltop with impressive resumes.
Illinois State's collection of long and athletic players seems to know no end. Phil Fayne II, a versatile 6-8 player, and 6-6 junior D.J. Clayton have turned heads on more than one occasion.
Then there's Loyola, which may have the second-best class in the conference. Clayton Custer (Iowa State) transferred in after being courted by most of the Valley schools. He and three-star small forward Treyvon Andress headline the group. With three players rated a three-star or above, Porter Moser has made a significant splash in the recruiting wars.
While Custer was actually recruited last year and sat out a redshirt season in Chicago last season, he joins this incoming class. Moser said in a release that Custer is a key piece to the upward trajectory of Rambler basketball.
"Clayton's commitment to become a Rambler is huge for our program. He brings toughness, skill and a high basketball IQ to one of the most important positions in the game."
But what Marshall does better than anyone else is identify those players that are not only talented, but fit a role on his team. Wichita State has become a destination program. Shamet and last year's MVC rookie of the year Markis McDuffie were probably the highest rated players to grace the Shocker roster since the late 1990s.
Two freshman guards, Austin Reaves and C.J. Keyser, are both around 6-4 and 185 pounds with impressive credentials. Meanwhile, sophomore shooting guard Peyton Allen, a highly rated player in his own right, is walking on (a la Ron Baker) after a year at Texas A&M.
Commenting on Reaves' versatility, Marshall said in a release on the Wichita State athletics site:
"His scoring numbers stand out, because that's what he needed to do in order for his high school team to be successful, but we think Austin is the complete package. Growing up in a basketball family, he's already developed a great skill set. He handles the ball well, plays good fundamental defense, and has a knack for getting to the foul line. He's also a guy who excels at making plays for others."
Apart from McDuffie, the Shocker mainstays are all juniors and what this current class lacks in size, the juniors more than make up for. Shaq Morris, Rashard Kelly and Rauno Nurger are all experienced and physical enough to hold the fort for two more seasons, and Morris may be the most underrated MVC player heading into next season.
Illinois State will be better and Bradley and Loyola should be markedly better, but as you evaluate the current state of Valley basketball, you have to say Wichita State is pulling away.