Antoine Carr, Xavier McDaniel and Paul Miller needed a guard. Now they have one.
Wichita State sophomore Fred VanVleet earned Missouri Valley Conference Larry Bird Player of the Year honors on Tuesday. He is the fourth Shocker to win the award, which started in 1969. He led the second-ranked Shockers to a 31-0 season and an 18-0 MVC record. Carr, McDaniel and Miller are Shocker big men who overpowered opponents to star for the Shockers. VanVleet joins them as the first Shocker guard to win the honor.
Junior guard Tekele Cotton was named Defensive MVP. Wichita State forward Cleanthony Early and guard Ron Baker joined VanVleet on the All-MVC team. Cotton was voted to the second team. VanVleet rounded out a big haul with a spot on the All-Defensive Team.
VanVleet joins Creighton’s Doug McDermott as the only sophomores to win the award. He received 90 points and 22 first-places votes. Early finished second with 71 points and 12 first-place votes. Baker placed third with 28 points and one first-place vote. Cotton got a write-in vote for Player of the Year.
It is the first time the top three vote-getters came from the same school. A panel of 40 voters (coach, media relations person, two media members from each school) rank the players and are not allowed to vote for players from the team they represent or cover.
“It’s even better with the type of team we have this year, knowing that it could have gone to any three of us,” VanVleet said. “I give all the thanks and praise to my teammates and coaching staff for allowing me to be who I am.”
During a landmark season, VanVleet directed the Shockers, on and off the court, with a calm and maturity not found in most sophomores.
“He just puts you at ease as a coach, knowing you've got him running your program,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said.
On Saturday against Missouri State, VanVleet took one shot, which Marshall uses as an example of his court sense. He made sure the seniors, playing their final home game, got their shots. He threw senior Nick Wiggins a lob for a dunk in the second half to give him a highlight. On ESPN, in front of a sellout crowd and a TV audience watching the nation’s lone unbeaten, VanVleet made the game about others.
“It’s all about winning for him,” Marshall said. “He is an extension of the coaching staff on the floor. It’s comforting to know he’s not even done with his sophomore season.”
Opposing coaches, especially those with an affinity for guard play, watch VanVleet with a mix of admiration and fear. He shoots accurately, scores in the lane and excels getting the ball to the right place late in the shot clock. Most of all, the game is always played at his speed.
“I think that's the sign of a good player,” SIU coach Barry Hinson said. “His pace is never determined by what somebody else is doing. It's always determined by him.”
Because of a tie, the MVC announced a six-man first team on Tuesday, also including Northern Iowa center Seth Tuttle, Indiana State guard Jake Odum and Evansville guard D.J. Balentine.
Cotton, who usually guards the opposition’s top scorer, didn’t make the All-Defensive Team as a sophomore, a decision that bothered Marshall and his teammates. Cotton kept plugging away and turned in another excellent defensive effort.
“It’s a good feeling to be recognized,” he said. “I don’t do it for the awards. If I can make my family and my teammates proud, that’s enough.”
WSU held MVC teams to 38.8 percent shooting and 30.4 percent from three-point range, a credit to its team defense and Cotton’s ability to neutralize top scorers. Balentine, the MVC’s top scorer, made 16 of 38 shots in two games vs. the Shockers. Bradley’s Walt Lemon went 11 for 34 in two games. Drake’s Richard Carter, who averages 16.3 points, totaled 12 against WSU. Cotton is quick to share that Baker and VanVleet shared the load.
“The way he can accelerate through the passing lanes and beat guys to the spot is unmatched in this league,” VanVleet said. “He gets a lot of credit for the steals but making guys go 6 for 20 and 5 of 19 a lot of time goes unnoticed.”
WSU’s three-man representation on the first team is the MVC’s largest since Memphis put three players on the 1973 team, an era when the MVC named 10 to the All-MVC team and designated all first team. Three Shockers — Dave Stallworth, Kelly Pete and Dave Leach — made the 1965 10-man team. In seasons in which five players made first team, only Oklahoma State had three or more, in 1946 and 1951.
WSU has placed two players on the All-MVC first team seven times, most recently Joe Ragland and Garrett Stutz in 2012.
WSU junior Darius Carter was named to the All-Newcomer team.