(AP) – When last season finally ended for Wichita State and Gregg Marshall had a chance to reflect on it, the Shockers’ coach relished just about everything.
Five months without a loss. Five months climbing the polls. Five months in which Wichita State was nationally relevant after an inspired Final Four trip the previous season.
Just about the only thing Marshall didn’t care to think about was the way it ended.
The 11th-ranked Shockers hope to get the 2014-15 season off to a solid start Friday night when they host a New Mexico State team coming off its third straight NCAA tournament berth.
Wichita State was seeded No. 1 in the tournament but was placed in the same region as eighth-seeded Kentucky, which upset the Shockers on the way to the national title game, where it lost to Connecticut.
“What I tried to focus on was the five-month journey we’d been on and all the positives, all the good memories and good times that we were able to share during the run,” Marshall said. “At the same time, you know, that game – it slaps you in the face how suddenly it’s over.”
Now, it all begins again.
The Shockers return the nucleus from a team that finished 35-1. Point guard Fred VanVleet is an All-American candidate, Ron Baker is one of the nation’s best guards, Tekele Cotton is a lock-down defender and big man Darius Carter a valuable rim protector.
The biggest loss was forward Cleanthony Early, who always seemed to come alive during the NCAA tournament. He’s been replaced by an influx of talented freshmen and transfers.
“We always hold ourselves to the highest standards, trying to get deep into the tournament every year,” VanVleet said. “We’ve got a good group back, a bunch of guys that have never played. We need to find the right balance of mixing those guys in.”
They’ll have to do that in a hurry against a much tougher schedule.
After this matchup with WAC-favorite New Mexico State, the Shockers face Memphis on Tuesday before dates with Saint Louis, Seton Hall and Alabama, plus a trip to No. 25 Utah in early December.
Marshall said the tougher schedule is a positive sign.
“I think it behooves these other teams to play us,” he said. “Our goal all along, for eight years, has been to play the best teams that will play us. But it’s been difficult to get those teams to pull the trigger. We want to put ourselves in a position with our nonconference schedule that we can get an at-large bid if we need it.”
Nobody expects the Shockers to need it, of course. They’re heavily favored to win the Missouri Valley, but they could find a surprise test in their opener the Aggies, who have held their own against quality competition.
New Mexico State (26-10) lost to No. 19 Gonzaga and top-ranked Arizona last season, but it won 67-61 at New Mexico – which won the Mountain West tournament – before taking fourth-seeded San Diego State to overtime in a 73-69 loss in the first game of the NCAA tournament.
The Aggies plan to play an up-tempo game and hope to keep the Shockers on their heels.
“There are obviously things that we need to improve at, but I feel that we are becoming more and more comfortable playing this type of style,” coach Marvin Menzies told the team’s official website after his squad’s 102-39 exhibition win Monday.
Reigning WAC player of the year Daniel Mullings returns after averaging a team-best 16.8 points last season and the guard has been picked to win the honor again in 2014-15.
Center Tshilidzi Nephawe is expected to make contributions down low, especially with the 7-foot-5 Sim Bhullar no longer around.
The Aggies have lost 15 straight to ranked opponents since beating No. 15 Nevada on Jan. 20, 2007.