The Wichita State Shockers have to be glad Fred VanVleet is back with the team.
After missing three games with a bum hamstring, and struggling through games before that when he looked far less than his normal self, the senior point guard scored 17 points and dished four assists in his second game back as the Shockers took down the UNLV Runnin' Rebels, 56-50.
It wasn't all roses for Wichita State though, as the team had to battle over the final five minutes of the game to hold off the Rebels, who had struggled to shoot just 40.4 percent from the floor.
The biggest issue contributing to the last-minute nailbiting was the Shockers' inability to close out UNLV at the free throw line. Wichita State shot just 50 percent from the stripe, including a rare 5-for-8 performance from Ron Baker, who missed two down the stretch that could have iced the game a little sooner for Wichita State. For his part, VanVleet went just 1-for-4.
But that was the rare off spot in VanVleet game on Wednesday night. He was back to his spry self on defense, part of the reason why Wichita State was able to stymy the Rebels on offense. He did a much better job of creating space on the floor for his teammates, and he was the main driver of the unusually quiet crowd in Koch Arena.
VanVleet was just the first piece in reassembling the team that Gregg Marshall thought he had at the beginning of the year, the one that trounced Charleston Southern to open the season. Anton Grady is still out with his scary back injury, and Landry Shamet has been lost until February (just in time to make a Ron Baker-like return to help the team off the bench).
Conner Frankamp, the Kansas transfer, finally got eligible for the Shockers, but struggled to get into his rhythm on the floor, going 0-for-5, just one of the Shockers who had trouble finding the mark. Adding Frankamp to the mix should give Wichita State another shooting option, something they desperately need at this point in the season. But he needs to find that shot fast, especially with the upcoming schedule.
Wichita State can't afford to shoot 37.5 percent from the floor against Utah or Seton Hall, and they definitely can't repeat a dismal 3-for-18 shooting performance from 3-point range.
The depth of the rotation continues to be a concern for the Shockers, as no one past the top three -- VanVleet, Baker and tonight, Zach Brown (9 points, 2 blocks) -- has been able to step up and give an all-around game that truly helps the the cause for this team. Whereas Wichita State is used to going seven or even eight deep, they have trouble getting past the starting lineup right now. Even with UNLV's shooting issues, Wichita State was outscored 20-13 off the bench and outrebounded 12-8.
Still, Wednesday marked the best win of the young season for the Shockers, and the first time that they have truly capitalized on their strong nonconference schedule. UNLV is expected to contend for the Mountain West title, and was on the verge of the AP top 25 after defeating Oregon. This helps to erase some of the bitter taste of going 0-4 against some likely top 100 teams in Tulsa, USC, Alabama and Iowa.
There are still opportunities for the Shockers, but the margin for error is very thin right now if they don't win the Missouri Valley. This was just a single step in the right direction.
The Shockers need a big leap.