ST. LOUIS — The eyes of the college basketball world were watching in April as Wichita State's Cleanthony Early exploded against Louisville in the national semifinals. And those eyes loved what they saw.
It was Early who helped the Shockers gain a 12-point lead over the Cardinals in the second half. It was Early who drove the middle and elevated to the top of the Georgia Dome in Atlanta before a crashing dunk. It was Early who became the nation's latest "Who's That Guy?"
Wichita State couldn't hold on against Louisville, which rallied to beat the Shockers and then defeated Michigan in the national championship game. But Early left an impression, one that carried over to this season, when he was named the Missouri Valley Conference's preseason player of the year, made the Wooden Award list of the nation's Top 50 players and was an Associated Press preseason honorable mention All-American.
That's a lot of hype. And Early has had difficulty living up to it.
But he may have arrived Sunday, in crunch time of a harrowing game against Saint Louis at the Chaifetz Arena that the Shockers pulled out, 70-65.
After missing eight of nine shots — his only make was a dunk, similar to the one he had against Louisville — Early scored 10 points when the Shockers needed them most, in the final 4:20. His breakthrough began quietly with a pair of free throws. Then he made the two biggest shots of the game, three-pointers from the baseline with 3:47 and 2:46 to play. Both came with the Shockers trailing by one point.
Wichita State's unbeaten start to the season has come with limited contributions from Early. He went into Sunday's game averaging 14.4 points and 7.1 rebounds, certainly nothing to sneeze at. But he hasn't been getting shots to fall, hitting just 42.7 percent from the field overall and 23.3 percent from the three-point line.
"I've just been trying to keep my composure,'' the 6-foot-8 Early said. "It's something where I've been trying to make the adjustment from last year to this year. These guys all have my back and Coach (Gregg Marshall) has been extremely positive and supporting me. I just tried to dig deep."
Early said he's too often in his own head, thinking too much when he should be reacting.
"I have all the abilities, they say, and I believe so, too,'' he said. "I just have to put it all together. Sometimes I just got to not think and just play. That's what I need. Just do what I do and be comfortable."
Ah, but how do thinkers not think?
Early has a level of introspection far beyond his years. He is thoughtful, contemplative, smart. He knows what people expect from him and he wants to deliver. And finally he did after spending much of Sunday's game in the background. There were many Wichita State possessions in which Early didn't even touch the basketball.
Asked if he agrees that Early thinks too much on the floor, Marshall considered for a moment, then said, "Maybe."
"We'll continue to think," Marshall continued. "Maybe he's thinking about the wrong things instead of just playing. I believe that in my heart."
The wrong things?
"Maybe the next level," Marshall said. "I haven't sat down and talked to Cle about it, but I believe that's probably in his head too much. Last year he got himself into a position to play at the next level by just playing basketball. Just playing. He was a nobody and he became a somebody.
"Now he can become a really good somebody, but he's got to just play. Relax. He puts too much stress on himself."
The dynamics of this season's Wichita State team are different. Sophomore guard Ron Baker, who missed much of the 2012-13 season with an injury, is developing into a star. He's the guy who has been playing mostly like the player of the year in the Missouri Valley Conference.
The Shockers really haven't needed Early to play big. Until Sunday. And when they needed him most, he came through.
"The frustration is real tough,'' Early said. "I love the game so much and I just always want it to go my way. And sometimes it doesn't go your way and you have to learn to deal with that.
"But I think I do well under pressure. When things are not looking too good and it looks like it's going sideways, I try to lock in. I'm really good at locking in when it really matters but I've got to get that mindset for the whole game."
Early played 34 minutes against Saint Louis. Tekele Cotton (35) was the only Shocker to play more. But for much of that time, Early was stuck in mud. He was out there, except that he wasn't really out there.
"There are shots he has to put in the basket but he's falling away, fading away, looking for a (foul) call," Marshall said. "Cle has to adjust to being the preseason player of the year in the Valley, being on the Wooden Watch list. These guys know who you are and they're going to come at him pretty hard. They're going to try and get in your head. You have to remain stoic, put your head down, do your job and not react."
The Shockers couldn't have won Sunday without Early's final 4:20. But they needed another 30 or so. Early needs to be "the" guy, not "a" guy.