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Commentary Bob Lutz: Early turns in another NCAA masterpiece

  • Published Sunday, March 23, 2014, at 7:22 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, April 18, 2014, at 11:39 a.m.

ST. LOUIS – Cleanthony Early is a young man who, more than most his age, understands life’s ups and downs.

Almost four years ago, his older brother, Jamel Glover, drowned.

Sunday, Wichita State lost a basketball game.

There is no comparison.

Which is probably why Early, a senior who has played his last game as a Shocker, was so matter-of-fact after the game. While teammates Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet looked emotionally flushed, Early checked his phone for text messages while taking questions from reporters in a news conference.

It’s not that Early, who was the best player on the floor against Kentucky during the Shockers’ first and only loss of the 2013-14 season, wasn’t upset. He was.

But he has perspective.

“I wanted it to end a little different, but I have to understand certain facts,” said. “I’m sure I’ll continue working hard to be successful. I am sure my teammates will. And it is what it is.”

Early was superb, outstanding, scintillating. There isn’t an adjective too strong to describe the way he played. He scored 31 points, 16 of them in the game’s final 9:53 as the Shockers were fighting tooth and nail with a young but supremely talented Kentucky team that was a different animal in the second half.

He was even better than he was in last season’s national semifinal loss to Louisville, when he exploded like a meteor with 24 points.

Early’s best two games as a college player came in NCAA Tournament losses. That’s not such a bad thing to put on a resume.

“I think that’s a pretty good indication of the quality of player that he is,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “He’s just athletically gifted and he’s been shooting the ball great. I didn’t even sub him in the second half. Maybe that’s my fault, but he was going so well.”

No, no, Early belonged nowhere near a bench in Sunday’s second half.

He made two big shots to put the Shockers up by three with 8:57 left. He made another basket to re-establish that three-point lead with 7:25 to go. He made a three-pointer to give Wichita State a 66-62 lead with 5:47 left and another three-pointer to make it a five-point lead with 4:32 to play. His basket at the 2:14 mark made it a 71-70 lead. And his two free throws with nine seconds left brought the Shockers within a point.

Kentucky got a lot of Early early and a lot of Early late. And in the middle, too.

“He rises to the occasion, doesn’t he?” Marshall said. “On the big stage he plays his best. I am just sorry that his career is now over here, but I will guarantee you his career is just starting at the next level. He is going to be a dynamite player because he is a great person, he works extremely hard and he wants to be a great player.”

I’ll be surprised if Early doesn’t start showing up on some of the NBA mock drafts that are out there. He’s 6-foot-8 with tremendous shooting range. He can rebound and fly to the basket. Most of all, he’s a much-improved defensive player.

And there’s his perspective. His maturity. He wasn’t devastated by Sunday’s loss because he recognizes there are more important things.

“It sucks,” he said. “But there’s always a chance of winning or losing, so I wouldn’t say I’m shocked. I wouldn’t have been shocked if we had won. It’s just that bittersweet zone, you know?”

Early, a junior-college transfer who played two seasons at Wichita State, played in a Final Four and was the best player on a team that made a 35-0 run before losing in the NCAA Tournament.

That’s what you call leaving a mark.

“I was fighting for a win today,” he said. “That’s what I was thinking about. I wanted to continue in this tournament, to survive and advance. But I’ll continue to be optimistic because that’s the type of person I am.”

Early had fun Sunday. The loss wasn’t fun, but the game was.

He got to run up and down the floor at the Scottrade Center with the thoroughbred athletes from Kentucky, guys who are sure-fire future NBA lottery picks. He was in his element.

“I’ve got that confidence that I’m the best guy on the court,” Early said. “And I’m pretty sure they’ve got that confidence, too. What’s left to do then is just to play basketball and show them proof. They won that game, but we went out fighting.”

One of the messages Early checked on the interview podium after Sunday’s game was from Kansas sophomore and Wichita native Perry Ellis, whose Jayhawks also lost Sunday, to Stanford.

“He said he’d be down to Wichita soon,” Early said. “And that we’ve got to go to work.”

Early moves on now, driven to be his best. But life’s events have made him mature enough to know that, at the end of the day, it’s just basketball. And win or lose, it’s fun.

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