ST. LOUIS – As Evansville’s D.J. Balentine was firing up one shot after another, 21 in all during Friday’s game against Wichita State, something else started to impress me about the Shockers. And there is no shortage of things that impress me about the Shockers.
This time, though, it was their unselfishness.
Not that Balentine, as good a player to come along in the Missouri Valley in a while, is a ball hog or a hunter of shots. Far from it; the Purple Aces need him to fire away whenever he has an opportunity. He had 31 points in the MVC Tournament quarterfinals against WSU and every shot was justified.
It’s just that Wichita State, which polished off Evansville 80-58, doesn’t require anyone to let it fly. The Shockers have five on the floor at all times who are capable for liftoff.
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Tekele Cotton, of all people, took the most shots for the Shockers on Friday – 11. Cleanthony Early took 10.
It has been three seasons since a Wichita State player took 20 shots in a game. That was Toure Murry against Temple in the Puerto Rico Shootout on Nov. 20, 2011.
When Early scored 39 points last season against Southern Illinois at Koch Arena, he needed only 19 shots.
“Being unselfish has to be in your nature a little bit,” said Early, who, like Ron Baker, had 17 points to lead the Shockers. “I feel like I’m a scorer, but at the same time I like to see my teammates do good.”
Wichita State has had a way of getting everyone into the mix since Gregg Marshall took over as coach in 2007. He downplays his involvement.
“I think these guys are unselfish, but I don’t tell good players to pass on good shots,” Marshall said. “We’re not ever going to do that. These guys have character, that’s for sure. Maybe they do sacrifice a little bit individually for the overall good. But at this point, who’s going to argue that they aren’t getting their just rewards?”
The Shockers might be the best advertisement for sharing, a human quality everyone admires, in all of college basketball.
Wichita State hasn’t had a player average 15 points for a season since Marshall arrived, though Early (15.8) is threatening to break that streak. On the flip side, the Shockers have had a bunch of guys average in double figures, as four more are doing this season.
“For me, (being unselfish) is just kind of how I was raised,” said Baker, who needed only nine shots to score his 17 against Evansville. “And when I got here, that’s what we’re all about. I don’t know if it’s luck or destiny or whatever you want to call it, but this team is very unselfish. If we continue to play like that, I like our chances.”
The leader of Team Unselfish, at least on the floor, is point guard Fred VanVleet, yet another who would rather fill up a stat sheet than be noticed just for the shots he puts up.
VanVleet scored only nine points Friday. But he had five assists and four steals, numbers just as gratifying to him as points.
“I think playing that way has to be in your nature a little bit,” VanVleet said. “Then when you get a group of guys together who are all unselfish, it’s contagious. Maybe if not all 15 on a team are that way, maybe having 10 who are will carry over to the others. It becomes contagious and it breeds more unselfishness.”
Early could average 20 or more points for a lot of teams in the country. Same for Baker.
But that’s not the Shockers’ style. They look for open teammates, they make the extra pass. A lot of players put their heads down and drive to the basket. Or hunt perimeter shots to the detriment of the team.
As wins for Wichita State have mounted – 32 now and counting – and the unbeaten streak grows, the Shockers have refused to change the way they go about their business.
It really is a one for all, all for one team, which sounds like a cliché until you see it at work.
It’s impressive to watch a really good group of players put aside some of their individual talents to make it work together.
The most selfish thing I saw out of the Shockers on Friday – and it wasn’t really selfish at all – came during the second half, with the game salted away. Senior center Chadrack Lufile, standing alone near the free-throw line, hollered to teammate Nick Wiggins to get him the ball. He really wanted it, which was strange since Lufile most often gets the basketball in the low post.
Wiggins obliged. Lufile took the pass and launched a 15-footer. He made the shot. He was feeling it.