The transition from newcomer to one of the Missouri Valley Conference’s top five players is rarely done. Wichita State’s Cleanthony Early joined a select group on Tuesday.
Early, a 6-foot-8 junior forward, earned All-Missouri Valley Conference and Newcomer of the Year honors in voting by coaches, school media relations directors and the media. He is the ninth MVC player to win Newcomer of the Year (awarded since 1969) and earn first-team All-MVC honors. He is the first Shocker to earn All-MVC honors in his first season at WSU since Bob Wilson in 1973.
Early made the adjustment look easy much of the time. He averaged 14.5 points, leading WSU, and 5.2 rebounds. He scored 39 points in a win over Southern Illinois and recorded three double-figure scoring and rebounding games.
“He really likes to play and he was pretty coachable all year long,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “He’s supremely talented, confident, and asserted himself pretty early.”
Senior forward Carl Hall was named to the second team after averaging 12.4 points and 7.0 rebounds. Senior guard Malcolm Armstead, who averaged 9.8 points and 4.0 assists, earned honorable mention. Armstead and Early both earned spots on the All-Newcomer team.
Despite losing four starters from the 2012 MVC champions, WSU finished second this season, spent five weeks in the Associated Press top 25 and is in solid shape to play in the NCAA Tournament.
“It feels good to be a part of that experience,” Early said. “It definitely starts with the chemistry off the court. It feels pretty good (to earn the awards), but at the same time we’ve just got to keep going.”
Early is the second straight Shocker to win the top newcomer award, joining Hall from 2012. He is the fifth Shocker to win that award, joining Hall, Aaron Hogg (2003), Cheese Johnson (1976) and Bob Elmore (1975).
Creighton’s Doug McDermott earned MVC Player of the Year honors. He joined Early, Illinois State’s Jackie Carmichael, Indiana State’s Jake Odum and Evansville’s Colt Ryan on the All-MVC team.
WSU won the Defensive Team of the Year honors for a third time in a row. As in 2011, no Shockers were named to the All-Defensive Team. WSU held teams to 60.8 points and 40.4 percent shooting, both best in the MVC.
Marshall took issue with that vote. He called sophomore guard Tekele Cotton WSU’s top defender.
“That’s giving the coaches way too much credit … we throw this blanket out there and it just envelops the other team, and it’s nothing to do with the individual players,” Marshall said. “You can’t tell me there’s five better defenders than Tekele Cotton in our conference. I’ll give Tekele Cotton his due.”
Early, a transfer from Sullivan (N.Y.) County Community College, came to WSU with considerable hype. He earned NJCAA Division III Player of the Year honors twice. He started the season as the sixth man, while playing starter’s minutes. He scored 21 points against Western Carolina in his third game. His break-through game came in Mexico when he dented Iowa for 25 points and nine rebounds in a 75-63 win in Cancun. In 18 conference games, he averaged 15.2 points and 4.8 rebounds, making 47 percent of his shots and 36.6 percent of his three-pointers.
Second-seeded WSU (24-7) opens play in the MVC Tournament on Friday against either seventh-seeded Missouri State (10-21) or 10th-seeded Southern Illinois (14-16). Winning three games and locking down a spot in the NCAA Tournament is WSU’s next job.
“We lost two games going into (the tournament), so we have find our groove again,” Early said. “It’s been a goal from the beginning of the year to make it to the NCAA Tournament. Our goal is to work hard this week to make that happen.”
Baker keeps coming — WSU guard Ron Baker may be available to play in the tournament. He is recovering from a stress fracture in his left foot that has sidelined him since Dec. 18.
Baker practiced, in half-court drills, at full speed for the first time on Monday. He practiced in full-court drills on Tuesday. Should he continue to feel good, Marshall expects him to be cleared to play this weekend.
What kind of role Baker might play is unknown.
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” Marshall said. “He’s got to look good. He’s got to be better than other people. There’s chemistry factors in there, that we’ve been playing so long without him.”
Baker, a redshirt freshman, averaged 7.3 points and 2.6 rebounds in 10 games, all starts, before the injury.