LOS ANGELES — Wichita State freshman Fred VanVleet realizes playing a young point guard often means mistakes and mistakes means defeat.
So he happily took his rookie season slowly and learned behind senior Malcolm Armstead. In the NCAA Tournament, both are playing well and often play together. Armstead is WSU’s leading scorer in tournament games. VanVleet’s playing time is up over the regular season and he has one turnover in three games.
All because coach Gregg Marshall enjoyed the luxury of bringing him along at an appropriate pace. Armstead, a transfer from Oregon, sat out last season and paid his own way to school. He worked and took out loans to finish his college career as a Shocker.
“That’s a blessing,” Marshall said. “We had Malcolm Armstead. We’re not talking about (NCAA Tournament wins) if that doesn’t happen.”
At many schools, VanVleet starts as a freshman. But no matter how talented, freshmen are risky.
“(Coach) hasn’t had to lose with me while I was learning,” VanVleet said. “Sometimes when you’re bringing a young point guard along, you have to take your lumps. That hasn’t been the case because Malcolm has been there to carry the load for us. He definitely sets an example.”
Marshall delights in telling the story of a game in which he told Armstead to check in for VanVleet. Armstead declined, telling him to leave VanVleet in to continue a stretch of good minutes.
“I’m all about the team,” Armstead said. “If I see a teammate playing better and performing better for the best of my team, I’m all about it. All I want to do is win.”
The Shockers are winning big now, coinciding with Armstead cutting down on turnovers and VanVleet’s improvement. They are 10-3 since Feb. 9. Armstead realizes that when he plays well, the Shockers play well.
“A lot of game when we were losing, I wasn’t consistent,” he said. “I wasn’t doing the things I should be doing to get the team going. I just had to relax and take what the defense gives me.”
VanVleet said his performance in a win at Bradley, in which he scored eight points, showed he was ready to contribute more. In MVC games, he often played well at Koch Arena and back-tracked on the road. He scored a season-high 17 points against Drake at home and followed that by playing limited minutes in a road trip to Illinois State and Indiana State.
In March, however, the venue hasn’t mattered to VanVleet. He played 20 minutes and scored 13 points against Gonzaga in Salt Lake City. He played 18 minutes against La Salle.
“I made it a key focus of mine to play better on the road,” he said. “I think that’s just being new to the college game. I made a choice to try to be better on the road, just for myself.”
Armstead and VanVleet will face one of the nation’s toughest guards in Ohio State’s Aaron Craft on Saturday. Craft is a defensive stopper and full-time pest who earned All-Big Ten honors and is the school’s career steals leader as a junior. He averages 10.1 points, making 42.8 percent of his shots and 30.1 percent of his three-pointers.
“He’s going to be physical and he’s a great defender,” Armstead said. “He does what he does for a reason.”