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VanVleet finds Early early to get Shockers rolling

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, March 21, 2014, at 10:49 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, March 22, 2014, at 11:24 p.m.

— The player that walked out of the tunnel at the Scottrade Center on Friday night to lead Wichita State into the NCAA Tournament was much different than the one that sat in the back of the locker room at the Georgia Dome last April, disgusted with his performance after a national semifinal loss to Louisville.

Fred VanVleet isn’t the point guard he used to be, as Cal Poly found out as WSU pushed its record to 35-0 and moved into the third round of the NCAA Tournament with a 64-37 win.

VanVleet dished out eight assists against the Mustangs, the third-most in an NCAA Tournament game in Shocker history behind two games from Tony Martin in 1981 – Martin dished out 11 assists against Southern and 10 against LSU.

“I thought we were pretty crisp for the most part,” VanVleet said. “A couple of things we can get better at. A lot of guys didn’t shoot particularly well percentages, but it was the flow of the game. Cle (Early) got hot, so we were mostly looking for him.”

Several Shockers credited VanVleet for getting Early involved early, feeding the ball to the 6-foot-8 forward as he racked up 19 points in the first half. VanVleet picked up an assist on the game’s first basket, finding Early wide-open for a three-pointer, then hit Early for back-to-back assists on another three-pointer and an alley-oop dunk late in the first half.

“Nothing surprises me with Fred, not that number (of assists), nothing,” WSU guard Ron Baker said. “He wants to put his teammates in a position to score when he passes them the ball. He’s a very unselfish player, I’m happy for him.”

VanVleet, the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, was 1 of 5 against Cal Poly, but was his normal, steadying influence on defense and controlled the tempo of the game from start to finish.

“He does a lot of subtle things out there,” Cal Poly’s Dave Nwaba said. “He doesn’t ever get rattled. He doesn’t ever lose his cool and he gets everyone involved.”

VanVleet’s eight assists moved him into second for WSU’s single-season record, seven behind Warren Armstrong, who set the record with 194 assists in 1967.

“Fred is big time .. he’s one of the best point guards in the nation and he’s definitely a great, young leader for our team,” WSU guard Nick Wiggins said. “Sometimes he puts the team on his back and it’s not always by scoring. He definitely gets other people involved like he got Cle involved early tonight.

“But that’s just part of what he does. When he dribbles, it’s like he has the ball on the string, like a yo-yo ... it reminds me of a video game where you can’t ever take the ball from him.”

It was a far cry from last April, when VanVleet vowed to come back a changed player — better in every aspect of the game — after going 0 for 4 from the field and turning the ball over three times in 23 minutes against eventual national champion Louisville.

His first NCAA Tournament start on Friday was a step in the right direction. The Shockers face the winner of Friday night’s Kentucky-Kansas State game on Sunday.

“The way the game was going (against Cal Poly) we had the lead for the most part, so guys weren’t pressing too much,” VanVleet said. “It was just good to get back out there playing a game. You know, it’s been awhile, so I think the guys go the jitters out and we’ll be ready for Sunday.

Reach Tony Adame at 316-268-6284 or tadame@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @t_adame.

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