ATLANTA — The simple explanation Cleanthony Early had for his late-season resurgence, which culminated with a 24-point showing for Wichita State in Saturday’s 72-68 loss to Louisville, was not matched by his coach.
Early used one word repeatedly — confidence. When WSU coach Gregg Marshall was asked what makes Early so special now and so promising for the future, he was a bit less straightforward and a bit more descriptive, provoking the imagination.
“He’s a dynamite athlete,” Marshall said. “He’s like a pogo-stick athlete. He can spring up multiple times. It’s not the first jump always, sometimes it’s the second or third jump. He just has that ability.”
Early’s dynamic finale wrapped up arguably the junior forward’s best five-game stretch of the season, considering the opponents the Shockers met during the NCAA Tournament.
His performance Saturday, when he made a basket on WSU’s first possession, a three-pointer shortly afterward and often carried the offense from there, was possibly Early’s best.
When the Shockers were mostly tiring late due to Louisville’s constant full-court pressure, Early maintained his energy to produce big plays that allowed WSU to hang on to hope. He had a pair of tip-ins during the final minute and 45 seconds that cut Louisville’s five-point leads to three.
Early scored in double figures in four of WSU’s tournament games, topping 20 twice. That was on the heels of scoring 15 points total in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, during which he battled a stomach ailment.
“It was the confidence growing,” Early said. “The confidence is always growing. I felt like I always had the potential to do that, and there’s other guys that have the potential to do that. Coming off the Valley Tournament, I didn’t play too good and I felt like I had to pride myself on making a statement.”
Early shuffled between starting for WSU in his first year after transferring from a small junior college in New York and coming off the bench. His scoring abilities played in either role, providing instant offense as a reserve or enabling Early to find an early groove as a starter.
Other areas of his game are what limited Early’s playing time. His defense, in particular, was his greatest area of growth according to Marshall.
But Early thrived in all facets since returning to the starting lineup for WSU’s Sweet 16 game against La Salle. He helped limit Ohio State star DeShaun Thomas in the Elite Eight and he’s grabbed at least seven rebounds in five straight games. He had 10 rebounds Saturday, one off his career high. The 6-foot-8 Early has also been more versatile offensively, frequently challenging opposing big men with drives to the lane.
“(Starting) helps any player,” Early said. “I think I was just as good coming off the bench, but there’s a certain spark and energy you get starting the game, and everyone loves that feeling.”
Early found that spark and rhythm with the early five points and nearly found himself in a national championship game largely due to his efforts. WSU’s last lead came on an Early three-point play that put the Shockers ahead 60-58 with 6:06 to go.
Early played Saturday like a player whose near future includes the NBA. Before that, though, he’ll be the best returning player from a Final Four team and he’ll have a year to become more complete. That inspires confidence.
“There’s a couple of things we’re going to work on specifically (that) I’ve already got in my head, but I’m not going to talk about them,” Marshall said. “And I think he’s going to be even better next year.”