Alterique Gilbert leads Wichita State basketball to title

Lately, life hasn’t given Alterique Gilbert too many moments of unadulterated bliss on a basketball court.

For the past four years at Connecticut, Gilbert felt like he was in a funk he couldn’t escape. On the court, the coach he signed to play for was fired after his first season and injuries prevented the former McDonald’s All-American talent from fulfilling his potential. Off the court, Gilbert battled with his mental health.

That pain was a distant memory on Saturday afternoon when Gilbert was laying spread eagle on a confetti-covered court at Koch Arena following Wichita State’s 80-63 win over South Florida, kicking off the coronation for the Shockers as first-time men’s basketball champions of the American Athletic Conference.

On Saturday, Gilbert found exactly what he came to Wichita for: a championship and true happiness.

“It was a great time for God to show his presence in my life,” Gilbert said. “For me, this is big, man.

“This is just a blessing for me to be able to wake up and be able to play the sport of basketball, let alone doing it with a great group of guys and a great coaching staff. I’m in a place where I feel comfortable. That helps a lot.”

Not much has gone according to plan for Gilbert in his college basketball career. There was a fear it was happening again when he committed to WSU in March to play for Gregg Marshall, only for Marshall to resign eight days before the start of the season.

That triggered some bad memories from Gilbert’s last stop, but in a testament to how far he has come in his mental health journey, Gilbert was able to still deliver the most impactful season of his career. He’s averaging a career-best 4.2 assists per game and is second on WSU in scoring (10.1 points) and first in steals (1.5).

Gilbert’s mother, Tamonica Alexander, said she has noticed a difference in her son this season playing in Wichita.

“It just seemed like he fit with this team,” Alexander said. “He went through a depression mode at his previous school and he had to overcome all of that, and it seems like Wichita and the team and his coaches are a big part in that. When he went through all of that, he would just shut down. But this season he’s driven. I can hear the excitement in his voice when I talk to him.”

Just as important and maintaining his mental health in Wichita was maintaining his physical health. After three surgeries on the same shoulder, Gilbert has admitted the injuries have changed the way he plays the game. When he arrived in Wichita, he devised a detailed plan with WSU strength and conditioning coach Kerry Rosenboom to strengthen his shoulder.

The two built trust in each other, as Gilbert liked that Rosenboom was plenty familiar with shoulder injuries after having worked with more than 80 pitchers who have reached the Major Leagues. The result for Gilbert was playing in every regular-season game for the first time in his five-year collegiate career.

“We wanted to limit anything overhead because you don’t want to put strain on the labrum,” Rosenboom said. “And we doubled up on everything on the back part of the shoulder. If that stays strong, then he’ll have a better chance of keeping that shoulder as a whole healthy. He was just very religious with it the whole time. He’s just very in tune with his body, and it’s been a complete pleasure to work with him because of his dedication.”

While he’s not perfect, evident by his 34% shooting and 2.4 turnovers per game, Gilbert has been one of the missing pieces WSU needed this season to win the conference championship and has been one of the team’s go-to players in the clutch for baskets. His impact isn’t properly captured by his statistics, as his mere presence as a veteran running WSU’s offense seems to inspire confidence from those around him.

WSU coach Isaac Brown said Gilbert has been vital to WSU’s stunning success this season.

“He makes a head coach’s life easy because I can give him the freedom to go make plays,” Brown said. “Sometimes he might turn it over, but he’s going to make the right play 90% of the time, and he can create offense for himself and for his teammates. I think that’s the difference for why we’re winning.”

Due to injuries and then the coronavirus pandemic, Gilbert has actually never played in a postseason basketball game in his college career. He’s looking forward to his debut scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday when the top-seeded Shockers will play the winner between Temple and South Florida in the quarterfinals of the AAC tournament in Fort Worth.

Gilbert is eligible to return to WSU for next season if he so chooses, but he has not made a final determination on that yet. As the saying goes, Gilbert is busy living his best life in the present with the Shockers.

“It means a lot to just be a part of this program, a part of this group of guys,” Gilbert said. “I’m just surrounded by great people, and I’m truly blessed for that.”

On a team that has overcome more than its fair share of adversity, Gilbert’s journey in becoming a champion stands above them all. It’s one that his mother believes anyone can learn from.

“It just shows the power of never giving up, despite adversity,” Alexander said. “You can through a day where it feels like it’s the end of the world, then the next day you wake up and your dreams come true. He’s proof of that, and I’m so happy for him.”

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Wichita State athletics beat reporter. Bringing you closer to the Shockers you love and inside the sports you love to watch.