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Time to slay the dragon: Shockers carry swagger into MVC’s unkind arena

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, March 6, 2014, at 6:12 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, March 8, 2014, at 12:05 a.m.

ST. LOUIS — Wichita State senior Cleanthony Early speaks for himself. And for a team. And for a city.

“Redemption, baby,” he said.

No. 2 Wichita State arrives at the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament confident it can live up to its status as the prohibitive favorite. The Shockers are 31-0 and two months of conference play ended with them six games better than second-place Indiana State. They want to cut down nets in the Scottrade Center for the first time and put a rest to all the disappointment and frustration since the tournament moved to St. Louis in 1991.

That is bad news for the nine schools hoping to steal the automatic bid on Sunday. The Shockers (31-0) don’t need much motivation to win this tournament, and yet, there is plenty. On Thursday, coach Gregg Marshall asked the Shockers to tell him their record.

Sensing a trick question, the players hesitated. Marshall answered.

“He said, ‘Our record is 0-0,’ ” WSU senior Nick Wiggins said. “(He said) ‘Wichita State has never won in St. Louis, never cut down nets here.’ It definitely got guys motivated.”

Marshall’s office features several decorations — framed newspaper articles, a surfboard from the Maui Invitational and pictures of himself with former players. His favorite is a collection of nets, cut down to celebrate wins at Winthrop and WSU.

Absent is one from the MVC Tournament. The Shockers lost in the championship game in 2010 to Northern Iowa and in 2013 to Creighton.

This group of Shockers appears unburdened by past failures, by pressure, by attention, by anything, really. With a unflappable backcourt and powerful bigs, they appear to be the team that can stop the silliness in St. Louis.

“We haven’t cut down nets here and we want to do that,” Marshall said. “They want to be really, really great and achieve things that other Shocker teams haven’t.”

If the backcourt of MVC Player of the Year Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton gives WSU its maturity and sense of purpose, Early gives the Shockers sizzle and swagger with his confidence, scoring and athletic ability.

“Brash confidence and a jolt of energy,” VanVleet said. “A kind of calm recklessness, and you need some of that.”

Early, a 6-foot-8 forward, excelled on the road in the MVC this season, grabbing the spotlight in the most difficult places. To measure his influence, think back to last season’s Final Four game against Louisville. He scored WSU’s first five points and signaled the Shockers belonged in Atlanta.

“He’s not scared to perform, and you always need a player like that on your team that you can see,” Wiggins said. “Versus Louisville last year, he hit his first two shots and it got everybody going, that we’re here and we can play.”

Early didn’t show much of that confidence or energy last season in St. Louis, for good reason. He ate something — bad wings or bad spaghetti — and spent most of the weekend recovering. He played 21 minutes and scored five points in a quarterfinal game against Missouri State. In the semifinal win over Illinois State, he played 14 minutes and scored eight points. In the final against Creighton, two points in 23 minutes.

“Right during halftime, I told Coach I wasn’t feeling good,” Early said. “Then I started throwing up like crazy.”

Redemption, baby. There aren’t many place the Shockers need it. St. Louis tops the list. Considering WSU is a good bet to return for the NCAA Tournament, this is the time to right past wrongs in Scottrade Center.

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

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