Anytime you can draw a comparison to Dave Stallworth as a Wichita State basketball player, you’ve done something special.
And with his performance in two NCAA Tournaments, especially in huge games against Louisville last season and Kentucky last week, Cleanthony Early has made a significant impression. So much so that there could be a legitimate debate as to whether his jersey should be retired and hanging from the rafters at Koch Arena.
But before we get to that discussion, let’s revisit Stallworth, a two-time All-American who got to play in two NCAA Tournament games, both in 1964.
The University of Wichita won one, against Creighton, then lost to Kansas State with a trip to the Final Four on the line. That 94-86 defeat rates as probably the most difficult in Shocker history since it happened on WU’s home floor.
Stallworth, though, had 37 points against K-State after scoring 22 to go along with 23 rebounds in the win over Creighton. His two-game averages in NCAA Tournament play were astounding: 29.5 points and 18.5 rebounds.
In seven NCAA Tournament games, Early averaged 19.3 points and 7.3 rebounds. But in the two biggest games against those tradition-rich blue bloods from Kentucky, Early had 55 points, 17 rebounds and made 20 of 31 shots. Big-time players step up in big-time games and Early made an indelible mark on Shocker history.
Which brings us to an interesting question. Should Early, who played two seasons at WSU after transferring from Sullivan (N.Y.) Community College in New York, have his No. 11 retired?
The knee-jerk reaction is to say that he should. His performance against Kentucky, the last impression Wichita State fans will have, was one of the greatest in WSU history. He looked the part of an All-American and future NBA star and has already received second-team All-America recognition from the National Association of Basketball Coaches — every Shocker with a first-, second- or third-team All-America honor has his number retired.
Early finishes his Wichita State career with impressive numbers: 1,135 points (15.1 average) and 425 rebounds (5.7) in 75 games.
Are those numbers rafters-worthy?
Certainly the way Early played against Kentucky, and last season against Louisville, make it easy to be pro-jersey retirement.
But Early wasn’t the player of the year in the Missouri Valley Conference this season. That went to teammate Fred VanVleet, a sophomore point guard.
Last season, Early led Wichita State in scoring. But he started 22 of 39 games and shot less than 32 percent from the three-point line.
The 6-foot-8 Early wasn’t always at his best defensively, though he made remarkable improvement in that part of the game over the course of two seasons.
Remember, we’re talking retired jersey here, the highest honor a former Wichita State player can have. Five are up there: Stallworth, Xavier McDaniel, Cleo Littleton, Antoine Carr and Cliff Levingston.
The Associated Press All-America team, the most legitimate of the postseason teams, will be announced Monday. Being an AP All-American would carry a lot of clout.
Still, what would the discussion be had Early not played well against Kentucky last week?
It’s interesting to compare Early’s numbers to some outstanding WSU players from the past.
In 77 games, two more than Early played, guard Greg Carney scored 410 more points. Now Carney was a gunner and Gregg Marshall’s system doesn’t reward gunners. In fact, Early is the only player during Marshall’s seven seasons as coach to average more than 13.4 points. He did it twice, including 16.4 points this season.
Jamie Thompson, who scored 36 points in the national semifinals against UCLA in 1965, had 1,359 points and 518 rebounds in two more games than Early played.
Ron Harris, one of the most underrated players in Shocker history, scored 1,322 points and grabbed 624 rebounds in 78 games.
Then there’s Warren Armstrong, the greatest Wichita State player not to have his jersey retired. The 6-foot-2 Armstrong, who played from 1965-68 and then went on to become ABA rookie of the year in 1969, played in 78 games. Armstrong never played in an NCAA Tournament; in fact the Shockers just 43-36 during his three seasons but played in a tougher Valley.
Armstrong scored 1,301 points (166 more than Early), had 839 rebounds (414 more than Early) and handed out 429 assists (379 more than Early).
Early’s WSU teams were 65-10. Those numbers may trump all others.
But if Early’s jersey is retired, how can Armstrong’s not be?
The bottom line is that it’s too soon to make a judgment on whether Early’s jersey should be retired. The dust needs to settle so we can take a full account of his career. If you’re inclined to go off the last performance, then the way Early played against Kentucky warrants such an honor.
These decisions deserve more discussion, though. More time. For now, let’s agree that Early is a postseason Shocker superstar. The rafters may await, but let’s not clear a spot too quickly.