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Valley Player of the Year: Which Shocker will it be?

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, at 2:03 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, March 20, 2014, at 6:22 p.m.


Big Four

Wichita State may place three players on the All-MVC first team and a fourth on the second team. That presence is rare on All-MVC teams, but not without precedent.

•  In 1945-46, center Bob Kurland, one of college basketball’s first dominant big men, led MVC champion Oklahoma A&M to the NCAA title. Kurland, Weldon Kern, Stan Aubrey, J.L. Parks and Blake Williams made up the All-MVC’s first team. Shocker Harold Beal and Saint Louis’ Ed Macauley settled for second team.

•  In 1950-51, Oklahoma A&M’s Don Johnson, Norman Pilgrim and Gale McArthur joined Bradley’s Elmer Behnke and Gene Melchiorre on the first team.

•  The MVC named 10 players to its first team from the 1961-62 season until 1974-75. Cincinnati (1961-62 and 1962-63), Wichita State (1964-65) and Memphis (1971-72 and 1972-73) placed three or more of its players on the team.

Wichita State’s contenders

Cleanthony Early, 6-8, senior

WSU’s leading scorer (15.7) and rebounder (5.9) … Shooting 39 percent (32 of 82) in 17 MVC games from three-point range and 45.8 percent (76 of 166) from the field … Shot 50.5 percent in MVC road games, 46.3 percent from behind the arc. Led WSU in scoring in five of its nine MVC road games … Leads teams with 61 turnovers … Focus is sometimes an issue on defense, but is improving in recent games … Makes 85.2 percent of his foul shots, second in the MVC … Elite athletic ability that no team in the Valley can match.

Fred VanVleet, 5-11, sophomore

Averages 12.3 points and MVC-leading 5.2 assists … Makes 85.2 percent of his free throws, fifth in the MVC … Averages 2.0 steals, third in the MVC … Shooting percentage of 48.3 percent is seventh in the MVC and tops among guards … Making 42.7 percent of his threes, fourth in the conference … Always composed, his leadership keeps the Shockers on course … Scored 16 points in an overtime win at Missouri State, 12 in the final two minutes of regulation and overtime.

Ron Baker, 6-3, sophomore

Averages 13.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.6 steals … Shooting 84.8 percent from the foul line, third in the Valley … Ranks fourth in the MVC with a 2.0 assist-to-turnover ratio … Runs the offense when VanVleet rests and often guards the top scorer when Tekele Cotton is out … Scored 20 or more points in four straight games, all away from home, in non-conference play. In that stretch, he made 7 of 10 shots and scored 22 points at Saint Louis.

Tekele Cotton, 6-3, junior

Averages 10.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.4 steals … Guards opposing top scorers … Making 34.9 percent (22 of 63) three-pointers in MVC play … Scored in double figures in seven of the past eight games, including a career-high 21 against Drake … Hasn’t fouled more than three times in a game since December … Tireless defender who uses excellent fundamentals and quickness to stay in front of scorers and contest most shots.

Most coaches vote to give the Missouri Valley Conference’s Player of the Year honor to an athlete from the best team.

That usually makes the selection easy. Not this season. The best team is clearly No. 2 Wichita State. Picking the best player from the Shockers (30-0, 17-0 MVC) is a task that makes Valley coaches hesitate and look for help.

“I think that Gregg (Marshall) should hand that award out,” Bradley coach Geno Ford said.

“I’m trying to decide what dart to throw between (Cleanthony) Early, (Fred) VanVleet and (Ron) Baker,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “If Tekele Cotton was on another team, his numbers would skyrocket. He could get a lot of votes for all-league, as well.”

Indiana State coach Greg Lansing, if allowed, would vote for the Shockers. All of them.

“They’ve all been outstanding,” he said. “The strength has been them as a team.”

All-MVC ballots are due Sunday and the 40 voters (coach, sports information director and two media representatives from each school) will be forced to make a choice for Player of the Year by ranking their top three.

For the first time since Paul Miller in 2006, a Shocker will win the MVC’s top honor. There are no serious candidates from other schools. Only twice has an MVC team placed three athletes on a five-man All-MVC team. WSU has a chance to join that group, although it won’t match the 1945-46 Oklahoma A&M Aggies, which earned all five spots on the way to the NCAA championship.

Marshall, as well as the other voters representing WSU, can’t vote for Shockers. He is happy to leave that decision to others. Some will vote for Early, a senior forward, and some will vote for VanVleet, a sophomore point guard, in what appears to be a two-man race for Player of the Year. Baker, a sophomore guard, will get votes. Cotton, a junior guard, won’t be neglected this season when All-MVC and All-Defensive Team honors are handed out.

“I'm going to leave that up to the people that vote,” Marshall said. “They're all worthy, that's for sure.”

Early averages a team-leading 15.7 points and 5.9 rebounds and is the only player to rank in the top six in the MVC in both categories. VanVleet averages 12.3 points and leads the MVC in assists (5.2) and assist-to-turnover ratio (3.9). Baker averages 13.1 points and is fourth in the MVC in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.0. Cotton averages 10.5 points and 4.4 rebounds and usually guards the opposition’s top scorer.

Coaches polled on Tuesday’s conference call held off on naming the name for Player of the Year, except for Southern Illinois’ Barry Hinson.

“I voted for VanVleet,” he said. “He’s the head of the snake. I love the kid. I love how he leads the team. I’m always going to vote for the short guys.”

Hinson isn’t the only coach who expressed a preference for point guards.

“I’m probably biased to guards,” Lansing said. “They do so much. They have the ball in their hands so much. The tough one would be if they were without VanVleet, because Baker’s got to be their backup point guard.”

WSU has placed two players on the All-MVC first team seven times, most recently Joe Ragland and Garrett Stutz in 2012. In 1965, Dave Stallworth, Kelly Pete and Dave Leach earned first-team honors during a stretch of 14 seasons (1962-75) in which the MVC selected 10 players and designated all on the first team.

A similar haul is expected on Tuesday when All-MVC honors are announced. Early and VanVleet are locks and Baker appears to stand a good chance of making the first team. Cotton is not short on admirers, either, for his defense and willingness to accept a secondary offensive role — until the Shockers need him to score.

“I don’t know which one of those guys you pick as their MVP, but it’s certainly going to be one of those guys,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “(Cotton) plays his role as good or better as anybody in the country that’s in that same role. I just think Cotton has been terrific. To be the guy who is under-the-radar … sometimes guys don’t settle into that role as well as what Cotton has.”

Reach Paul Suellentrop at 316-269-6760 or psuellentrop@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @paulsuellentrop.

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