It’s not easy to determine Wichita State’s MVP. There are three candidates — point guard Fred VanVleet, shooting guard Ron Baker and forward Cleanthony Early — and a fourth, Tekele Cotton, who would be justified in making a claim.
Ultimately, though, the Shockers are about point guards. And they have been for a while now, starting with Clevin Hannah, then Joe Ragland, then Malcolm Armstead and now VanVleet, the captain of this 30-0 ship.
VanVleet might not be the flashiest player you’ve ever seen. He’s not a behind-the-back, between-the-legs, over-the-shoulder kind of point guard. He’s a two-hand chest pass kind of player in a flash-and-sizzle world. He’s a throwback to a time when being called a steady and heady point guard wasn’t an insult.
VanVleet understands basketball. He and his coach, Gregg Marshall, seem to share the same brain during games. And it’s reusable, game after game after game.
VanVleet rarely lays an egg. He’s had more than two turnovers in a game four times but has had five or more assists 18 times. He can shoot and averages four rebounds, which might be a record for a 5-foot-11 Shocker point guard.
There are times when VanVleet attacks the basket with little regard for self-preservation. But he always comes out the other end, and usually having just made an acrobatic shot.
The Shockers aren’t about individual star power. They never have been under Marshall, whose system encourages significant contributions from many rather than humongous contributions from a single player.
The 6-foot-8 Early is unquestionably the Shockers’ best athlete and most-gifted offensive player. He causes the most headaches for opposing coaches who are attempting to prepare for this WSU juggernaut because he’s the most likely to go off for 25, 30 or even more points.
It would have been interesting to see what Baker would have done this season had he been completely healthy. Then again, the hard-charging style with which Baker plays probably takes “completely healthy” off the table. An ankle injury has dogged Baker since mid-December and it seems like he tweaks it almost every game.
Yet he’s probably the most diverse Shocker player, equally as valuable on defense as he is on offense.
And Cotton is a clamp-down defender who has made himself into an offensive threat. Gone are the days of leaving him open on the perimeter.
Given the struggles of the Missouri Valley Conference this season, and the dominance of Wichita State, I think all four should be named to the All-Valley first team next week. I can tell you this: Marshall wouldn’t trade any of them for any other player in the conference and that’s not just because of loyalty to his guys.
I’m not a proponent for one team dominating an all-conference team. And it’s not a good sign for the Valley that the Shockers have been this dominant. It’s great for Wichita State; not so much for the conference.
But there’s no denying that WSU is just that much better. There are other good players: Evansville’s D.J. Balentine, Southern Illinois’ Anthony Beane and Desmar Jackson, Missouri State’s Jarmar Gulley and Northern Iowa’s Seth Tuttle are good players. Outside of Tuttle, though, all play on the perimeter. The Missouri Valley is nearly void of quality big men. In fact, Wichita State junior Darius Carter might be the best of the bunch, except for Tuttle.
I am not suggesting, though, that Carter join his four teammates on the Valley’s first team. That would be going overboard. I think.
What I am suggesting, acknowledging really, is that the Shockers are just that much better than every other team. And that their players are that much better than the players on other teams.
In a close call, the best of the best for Wichita State is VanVleet, the Shockers’ most consistent player from start to finish. You have to see him play night in and night out to gain the kind of appreciation warranted.
Only three times has VanVleet taken more than 10 shots. He could score more, but that’s not how the best point guards think.
The Shockers are unbeaten for a variety of reasons, but the consistent play of their point guard is near the top of the list.
VanVleet is the MVP on his team and the player of the year in the Missouri Valley. His fiercest competition comes from within. That’s the kind of season it’s been for Wichita State.