TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Four, sometimes five, nights a week you can find Wichita State senior Cleanthony Early in the Koch Arena practice gym with managers Chad Gibney or Jeff Chapman as rebounders.
Time in the gym. Repetition and practice. Those are the only ways he knows to fight through a shooting slump. The 11th-ranked Shockers are 10-0 and they haven’t seen the best of their preseason Wooden Award candidate yet.
“He’s going to break out soon,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “He’s still playing.”
Wichita State plays Alabama (5-4) on Tuesday looking to extends its school-record unbeaten start. If the Shockers can get past the Crimson Tide, they can start thinking about the 1953-54 team’s record of 14 straight wins. While the Shockers are cruising, things will get easier if Early can regain his shooting touch.
Finals are over. This is a time when players can spend as much time as they like with a basketball. Early is taking advantage of the schedule to spend late nights in the gym.
With Early, getting more arch on his jump shot is a regular goal. His routine includes 10 three-pointers from spots around the arc. He works on shots from the mid-post, mixing in jab steps. He practices pump fakes (like the one that freed him for a dunk in Saturday’s win over Tennessee) leading into a one-dribble pull-up jumper.
“I’m just here,” he said. “If it’s not dropping enough, you got to find a way to get in the gym enough and do whatever you do that makes your jump shot fall.”
Early, a 6-foot-8 forward, is shooting 43.2 percent from the floor and 28.9 percent (13 of 45) from three-point range. He made 5 of 9 threes against Saint Louis and Oral Roberts, briefly shaking his slump, before making 1 of 6 Saturday. He is getting to the line often and shooting 78.6 percent. He averages 14.2 points, second on the team.
Last season, Early averaged 13.9 points while making 45.5 percent of his shots, 31.8 from behind the arc. His numbers improved over the season’s final three months, and Early believes that will happen again.
On the way to the 2013 Final Four, he shot 46.2 percent overall and 35.4 percent from three-point range in the season’s final 27 games. In 18 Missouri Valley Conference regular-season games, he shot 47 percent from the field and 36.6 percent from three-point range. In five NCAA Tournament games, he made half his shots (30 of 60) and 8 of 23 three-pointers (34.8 percent).
“I’m getting better,” he said. “It was the same thing last year, just the whole beginning-of-the-year thing. That will come. Last year I didn’t start out shooting too good, either.”
Early came to WSU as a big-time scorer and the transition from junior college to NCAA Division I didn’t slow him. He scored 21 points in his third game and 25 against Iowa in the first performance that fully demonstrated his skills. When he had 39 against Southern Illinois, he joined the ranks of WSU’s most prolific scorers.
Now he’s looking for that confidence while dealing with new circumstances. His play last season, especially in the NCAA Tournament, attracted the attention of NBA scouts. He was named MVC preseason Player of the Year.
“Being confident and knowing that this shot is going and this is what I do, rather than ‘I got to make this, I got to make this,’ ” he said. “That’s part of the thinking process — ‘I can’t miss this, I can’t miss this.’ I’ve got to do what I do and play basketball. Don’t worry about trying to show too much. If you miss three shots in a row, don’t get on yourself. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
Early’s production hasn’t derailed the Shockers because he is contributing in other ways — he leads them with an average of 6 rebounds — and teammates are playing well. On Saturday, forward Tekele Cotton scored a career-high 19 points and forward Darius Carter came off the bench to score 11 points and grab 14 rebounds.
WSU will play its third road game on Tuesday against an Alabama team desperate, as Tennessee was, for a quality win. Guard Trevor Releford, Alabama’s leading scorer, will play, according to AL.com. He sat out Saturday’s 59-45 win over Charleston Southern with a hip injury, according to the website. Releford, a point guard from Kansas City, averages 16.4 points.
The Shockers have their own injury issue. Guard Ron Baker played against Tennessee with a sprained left ankle.
“Any game on the road in college basketball is going to be difficult,” Baker said. “It’s a quick turnaround for us and this game (Saturday) was really physical. It’s another SEC team and it’s going to be just as physical. They’re going to come at us, just like Tennessee did.”