By Tony Adame
Tribune News Service
WICHITA -- What exactly triggered Saturday's breakout performance from Wichita State freshman forward Rauno Nurger isn't easy to put a finger on.
How it made him feel is much more simple.
"I loved it," Nurger said, smiling. "If there's a big crowd like (Saturday), with 15,000 people, that gives you a lot of motivation. ... I just love it when it's in front of a big crowd."
Nurger, a 6-foot-10 freshman out of Sunrise Christian Academy by way of Koeln, Estonia, exploded for a season-high 15 points in No. 11 Wichita State's 81-52 win over Saint Louis on Saturday at a sold-out Intrust Bank Arena, snapping a four-game scoreless streak -- one in which he took just two shots.
It's a performance that drew tempered praise from some of the team's veterans -- and prodding to keep pumping out performances like the one he had against the Billikens.
"We all know he's a heck of an offensive player, and we're still bringing him along the defensive end and with rebounding," WSU point guard Fred VanVleet said. "We want him to stay confident, keep boosting him up. Today you saw a little bit of what he can do.
"He needs to keep progressing, keep getting better every day."
As VanVleet pointed out, aside from the scoring, the Shockers can also benefit from another big, capable body on the defensive end.
That could come in especially handy Tuesday night when the Shockers host Big East foe Seton Hall (7-0) at 6 p.m. Like Saint Louis, the Pirates are big up front. Starting forwards Brandon Mobley and Angel Delgado are both 6-9, with Rashed Anthony (6-9), Stephane Manga (6-6) and Desi Rodriguez (6-6) off the bench.
Seton Hall is coming off a convincing, 81-54 win over Rutgers on Saturday. The Pirates were fifth among others receiving votes in Monday's Associated Press Top 25 rankings.
"They've brought in some good players," WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. "They're very athletic, very aggressive and well-coached. We will have our hands full."
Nurger off the bench, along with fellow freshmen Shaquille Morris (6-8) and Rashard Kelly (6-7) can help negate the Pirates' size advantage. The Shockers two starting forwards are 6-4 junior Evan Wessel and 6-7 senior Darius Carter.
"I think he played really good (against Saint Louis), and it's something we've been seeing out of him in practice," Carter said of Nurger. "He has the ability to do that. We're not surprised ... he's a very talented player and we just keep telling him to do what he's got to do."
Nurger's biggest weakness right now seems to be on the boards. He grabbed one rebound against Saint Louis and is averaging 1.7 rebounds in 14 minutes. Comparatively, Kelly is averaging 4.3 in 13.7 minutes.
But when Nurger gets going on offense, like he was Saturday, he's impossible to keep off the floor. And, obviously, it's more fun.
In the second half, Nurger hit a three-pointer on the sideline away from the Shockers' bench and turned to the fans sitting in primo seats, stuck out his tongue and made the three-point symbol (a la Ron Baker) as he ran back on defense.
"The first shot I made built up my confidence a lot," Nurger said. "I tried to do the things (Marshall) wanted me to do, and it all figured itself out. I just did what he told me to."