Wichita State’s Early connects on the court, and through social media

01/04/2014 4:50 PM

01/04/2014 6:59 PM

Cleanthony Early’s fans expect a lot — dunks, three-pointers, rebounds and a few blocked shots. Those who follow him on Twitter also expect to start each morning with these words:

“Thank God for today.”

“I started doing ‘Thank God for today’ since I was in prep school and I’ve been doing it every single day,” he said. “When I’m late in doing it, the people in my in-box are saying ‘I’ve been waiting for your message’ and ‘You don’t know how much (Thank God for Today) inspires me, just that simple message.’ ”

No. 8 Wichita State (14-0, 1-0 Missouri Valley Conference) can set a school record with its 15th straight win when it plays Northern Iowa (7-6, 1-0) on Sunday at Koch Arena. Early, after a solid start to the season, is moving toward superb in his past four games. He scored 23 points in Thursday’s 82-67 win at Southern Illinois to pass 20 points for the third time in four games. He is averaging 22.3 points in that span, shooting 57.1 percent from the field (28 of 49) and 92.6 (25 of 27) from the line.

When Early heats up, so does his Twitter feed (@Clearly_BallLyf).

“I’m always on my phone,” he said. “A lot of that is generational. All of us are. I think it just became a part of people.”

After a game, he heads to the locker room and his iPhone 5s to check his feed and celebrate — in a social media way — with his fans (8,770 followers and growing). After the SIU game, he re-Tweeted 29 messages from followers, messages that pumped up WSU highlights on ESPN, told him “good game” and to “stay hungry and humble.” One fan admitted that a dunk proved Early can “jump higher than me.” Most are sure Early is on his way to the NBA, or “league-bound,” in the parlance of our times.

“I show love to people who show love,” Early said.

Early fell for Twitter and Facebook as soon as he logged on years ago. He determined that he needed to use those forms of communication to let people who don’t know him, get to know him. His feed is filled with positive thinkers (All your thoughts will take action when your actions take thought), religious messages (I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Acts 2:25) and practical advice (Be safe driving on these roads it's getting nasty out).

And plenty of basketball (Another Win in the Book, Shout out to my Bros, Back to work! Way to start the year!).

“I understand that what you talk about, what you Tweet about every day, will become a part of you, part of your mental (approach) and part of how you experience every day life,” he said. “I’d rather turn it into something optimistic and thinking positive and speak on those things that I think can help me.”

In Carbondale last week, a high school basketball player from a nearby town came to WSU’s Holiday Inn and Tweeted to Early, asking for a photo. Early replied (that's cool I'll be out soon) and the high-schooler walked away with pictures with Early and WSU coach Gregg Marshall. It is those people Early thinks about when he sends out messages.

“You become more than a person who’s just going to use it for you and your friends,” he said. “So many people are going to find a way to reach you or see what you’re doing or what you’re about. I’d rather make it something positive and make it something that’s going to take me in a good direction.”

Early’s fondness for social media is well-known among his teammates.

“He loves that Twitter,” sophomore guard Fred VanVleet said. “Whatever he does to keep getting 20 and 10, we need him to keep doing that.”

Early’s increase in basketball production coincides with an increased emphasis on scoring inside, which helps him draw fouls. Against Saint Louis, Oral Roberts and Tennessee, he shot four free throws. In the next four games he shot 27. A few free throws and two or three post baskets are the difference between him scoring 12 points and scoring 20.

Making himself a threat in the lane helps his outside shooting. Early is 8 of 21 (38.1 percent) from three-point range in his past four games, raising his season accuracy to 31.8 percent. He is the only MVC player ranking in the top five in scoring (16.5 points) and rebounding (6.4).

I just like seeing him go down there and be aggressive in the post and keep rebounding,” VanVleet said. “He can score down there with anybody.”

The Shockers will need Early at his best against Northern Iowa, which played the toughest non-conference schedule in the MVC according to warrennolan.com’s ranking. The Panthers lost to Ohio, Maryland, Iowa State and Virginia. They defeated VCU and La Salle. A November and December full of challenges prepared UNI for its MVC opener against Bradley. UNI routed Bradley 80-46, its largest margin of victory in an MVC game.

The Panthers made 10 of 24 three-pointers against Bradley, although they have shot poorly (31.8 percent for the season) from behind the arc in many games. UNI is averaging 72.3 points, almost six points more than in the previous seven seasons under coach Ben Jacobson.

“They can score in so many ways,” Marshall said. “We know how tough they are on the defensive end. They really make you work to get a good shot.”

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