SALT LAKE CITY — Who is Cleanthony Early?
Is he the All-Missouri Valley Conference player who put on a scoring performance against Southern Illinois in early January not seen in these parts for years?
Or is he the player who caught his coach’s wrath for not effectively guarding Creighton’s Ethan Wragge in the Valley championship game 11 days ago in St. Louis?
Is Early a hot-shot scoring machine who gives the Shockers a chance in their game against rugged Pittsburgh in the NCAA Tournament’s second round Thursday? Or is he too much of a defensive liability to even be on the floor much against the Panthers?
I take you back to that cold January night when Early’s 39 points brought a Koch Arena crowd to a boil. He put on a show that was reminiscent of the great Shocker scorers in history. He made 13 of 19 shots, including 5 of 9 three-pointers. It came on the heels of a 24-point game at Bradley and it looked as if a star was being born.
Early didn’t disappear after the SIU game, certainly. He has scored in double figures in 14 of 18 games since.
But in those 18 games, the 6-foot-8 Early has shot 40.2 percent, and just 28.4 percent from the free-throw line.
His scoring average has slipped from 15.4 points 13.6. After exploding for 39, Early hasn’t scored 20 in a game since.
And he’s coming off three games in the Valley tournament that made him sick. Literally. He scored 15 points in three games and made 5 of 21 shots.
“Being sick is no excuse ’cause I was out there playing,’’ Early said. “But I was kind of throwing up like crazy. It was bad. I had to get a shot in my back side and I was throwing up every second. But that’s no excuse.’’
Well, it sounds like an excuse. A darn good one, too. Throwing up always works as an explanation for decreased performance.
But there’s no escaping that Early hasn’t developed into the elite scorer he was on the verge of becoming.
“If we don’t add Cleanthony to the mix this year as a junior college transfer, we’re not sitting here at the NCAA Tournament,’’ Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said.
No argument here.
Still, what happened?
For one thing, Marshall demands defense from his players, even the most offensively-gifted ones. And at times, Early has fallen short of his coach’s defensive expectations.
“Yes, he’s more of an offensive player than a defensive player right now,’’ Marshall said. “But he’s tried. And he’s been very receptive to coaching. Every once in a while he bristles at the directness of our coaching staff, but I think ultimately what is most exciting for him and for us is how much better he cane become on that end of the floor.’’
“That end of the floor” isn’t what made initially drew Early to basketball. He’s like thousands of other players who never had to give in to the hard work necessary to play good defense. Now here he is, a junior, and he’s had to learn a lot on the fly.
“This is a whole new experience, the highest level I’ve ever played,’’ Early said. “And I continue to have dreams of hopefully playing on an even higher level. So you’re going to have to deal with things like people being straightforward with you, people being tough on you.’’
Marshall has not coached a more gifted offensive player at Wichita State than Early. Offense, though, isn’t enough for a coach who admits he’s obsessed with defense and rebounding, two elements that will be crucial if the Shockers are to have a chance against Pitt.
It would also be beneficial for Wichita State to make some baskets against a Panthers defense that makes doing so difficult.
Is Early in a place with his confidence that he can have a productive offensive game? Since scoring 18 against Detroit on Feb. 23, he is averaging 7.2 points and shooting 30 percent.
“Every team, technically, plays defense and rebounds,’’ Early said. “Pittsburgh is really good at both and that’s what they’re known for. There was clearly a lack of energy for me in the Valley tournament, but I’m feeling much better now and hopefully I can go out there and perform for my teammates.’’
The two-time NJCAA Division III player of the year has had ups and downs adjusting to Division I. It wasn’t ever going to be as easy as Early made it look during his 39-point game against SIU.
“You try to buy in and sometimes you don’t fully get it,’’ Early said. “It’s not always the quickest process in the world. Progress is a process and I think we’re in that process right now.’’
Early is special. Marshall knows that. Anyone who has watched the Shockers knows that.
But Early’s shaky play at times over the past several weeks has been confusing. There’s no excuse for a player with his offensive abilities to be limited to 15 points in three games. Not even throwing up like crazy and getting a shot in the rear end.