ST. LOUIS — This weekend’s chicken wings agreed with Cleanthony Early just fine, thank you.
Seems like everything is going right for Early and his Wichita State teammates during these unbeaten days.
Early’s 20 points Saturday led the Shockers past overmatched Missouri State 67-42 and into Sunday’s championship game of the Missouri Valley Tournament against Indiana State.
In two tournament games, the senior forward has 37 points on 14-of-23 shooting, including 6 of 10 from the three-point line.
No telling what more Early would have done Saturday, if Gregg Marshall hadn’t wisely opted to let him rest most of the second half of the blowout. He played six minutes after scoring 14 in the first half.
But that’s just the fine print of the big picture, so let’s move on.
Tougher the situation, the tougher Early gets. As good as he has been at home, he’s even better on the road.
“When you have crowds talking trash to you, saying Early this or Ron Baker that,” he said, “you want to come back on them. You think, `Oh, really.’
“You take that and it gives you a bit of confidence to do more.”
In 17 home games this year, Early averaged 15 points. His pace away from Koch Arena has been almost three points higher.
Not a big difference until you consider many players see their numbers slip in the face of hostile crowds.
Now, the crowds at the Scottrade Center this week, are hardly hostile to the Shockers. WSU fans dominate.
But fans of opposing teams can be heard. Early heard those sharp tongues Saturday.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “They were saying, ‘Early, you don’t look angry. You look happy.’ ”
If they really knew Early, they’d know he’s almost always smiling.
“This is supposed to be fun,” he said.
Last year’s Valley tournament wasn’t much fun for him, though.
After the Shockers’ opening game, a quarterfinal victory over Missouri State, he called a restaurant to have some chicken wings delivered to his hotel room.
He felt sick shortly after eating and threw up following the next day’s victory over Illinois State, when he had eight points in 14 minutes.
“I told Coach I wasn’t feeling well,” Early said. “I was throwing up and throwing up and throwing up.”
OK, we get the picture.
He was drained and dehydrated for the championship game, a loss to Creighton, when he scored only two points in 23 minutes.
None of that explains why he scored five points in 21 minutes against Missouri State – before he gulped the bad batch of chicken wings.
So maybe the whole tournament was a stinker for him.
“I just know it wasn’t good,” Early said.
Of course, he came back nicely in WSU’s NCAA Tournament run – 24 points in the national semifinal against eventual champ Louisville and made the Final Four all-tournament team.
Away games seemingly have become his calling to a higher game this season.
“Maybe it’s just focus,” Marshall said. “Maybe it’s just he needs that external stimuli to get him going, fans call his name and his girlfriend’s name and all those things that they do on the road.”
During the Shockers’ barrage of three-pointers that kicked dirt in the Bears’ faces and buried their defense in Saturday’s first half, Early was in the mix by hitting 3 of 5.
Four minutes into the second half, he took a lob from Fred VanVleet and slammed it home for a knockout 44-23 lead.
“I think he’s always focused,” VanVleet said, “but definitely when opposing teams are talking trash. He gets and extra chip on his shoulder.
“Whatever he’s doing, if that’s the case, I want him to keep doing it.”
And so does Early.
“At this tournament last year, it didn’t go very well,” he said. “That gives me motivation to bring more energy this year and do things the right way.”
Including being more careful about the chicken wings he eats.
He had wings Friday night. But he got them at the team’s hotel and gave them a good look over before eating.
“They were great,” Early said. “No problem.”