Cleanthony Early will leave Wichita State just like he entered — shooting, scoring, never hesitating. Junior-college transfers can waste half their career if they’re not confident.
Early, a 6-foot-8 senior forward, has always been sure the next shot is good. Maybe great.
“The summer he got here, we were playing pickup and he had the most confidence out of anybody on the court,” teammate Ron Baker said. “His body language — very confident. Always wanted to win pickup games. We knew he was a big-time recruit and all the talk was true.”
The second-ranked Shockers (30-0, 17-0 Missouri Valley Conference) play Missouri State (19-10, 9-8) at 1 p.m. Saturday with history at stake at Koch Arena. With ESPN cameras leading the way, the national media and a growing bandwagon of fans will watch to see if the Shockers can grab this milestone and prove their worthiness as an NCAA Tournament contender.
Here’s some of what’s at stake:
• WSU can add to its NCAA-record regular-season unbeaten streak and become the first school to finish the regular-season unbeaten since Saint Joseph’s in 2004.
• It can add its name to a list of seven schools to win 31 or more games without a loss, most recently 1991 UNLV.
• WSU can also become the first MVC team go unbeaten since Bradley went 16-0 in 1985-86 and set the school record for conference victories.
• No modern-era MVC school has won 18 conference games; Oklahoma is the only other school to do so, going 18-0 in 1927-28.
This stage is made for a player such as Early, who is the first junior-college transfer to score 1,000-plus points for WSU and the second Shocker, along with Maurice Evans, to do it in two seasons. Some transfers need time to adjust. Early scored 21 points against Western Carolina in his third game and 25 against Iowa in his sixth. It took him 16 games to score 39 points, against Southern Illinois, tied with Dave Stallworth for 10th in school history.
By the end of the season, Early earned All-MVC honors, the first Shocker to do so in his debut since Bob Wilson in 1973, and a spot on the NCAA All-Tournament Team.
Always confident. Always talking. Always smiling. Always on Twitter. Early, from Middletown, N.Y. and Sullivan County (N.Y.) Community College, hasn’t spent much time on idle in his two seasons at WSU.
“It turned out like I thought it would — even better,” he said. “We went to the Final Four. I got to meet a great group of guys, guys I’m pretty sure I’m going to spend the rest of my life with. I’m going to get a degree.”
Early’s confidence started as a youngster in New York, when to keep playing pickup games his team had to win.
“If I lose a game, I wasn’t going home until I felt like I was going to win a game, or a couple of games, and feel good about myself,” he said. “I wanted to play all night. That’s the attitude I had coming from the city.”
Early’s confidence needed molding during his first days of practice.
“The first day we coached him, if he touched it, he shot it,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “He didn’t care if he was guarded, how open he was. He just kept shooting.”
Coaches told him many of those shots didn’t make sense. Then they began counting Early’s bad shots as turnovers, meaning he had to run full-court sprints at the end of practice.
“He probably didn’t like that, either, and I guess he wanted to stop hearing that from us,” Marshall said.
Early averaged 13.9 points as a junior and made 45.5 percent of his shots and 31.8 percent of his three-pointers. His shooting percentages grew as the season wore on, much like this season. Early is averaging 15.7 points, shooting 45.7 percent from the field and 35.4 percent from three-point range. In 17 MVC games, he is shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 39 percent (32 of 82) from behind the arc.
“He’s shooting the ball tremendously well the past 10 games,” Baker said. “We’re getting him better looks. I think, early on, he was trying to force a little too many difficult shots. Now we’re starting to get him open looks and he’s making uncontested shots.”
With that confidence and passion comes moments of emotion. Early is the Shocker most likely to chatter with officials after a call he disagrees with, much to Marshall’s displeasure. Those moments are growing less frequent.
“He’s always going to be the brash, energetic guy,” WSU guard Fred VanVleet said. “He’s more calm. He’s more developed as a friend and a voice in the locker room.”
While Early came to WSU with an advanced offensive game, his defense needed much work. That work continues. He is playing better defense in recent weeks as coaches continue to point out his deficiencies and prod him with the words of NBA scouts who doubt his defense.
“He’s taking more responsibility on himself,” VanVleet said. “We can win with him not guarding and not being engaged, because we’re good enough. To be special and to be great, we’re going to need him locked in on that end.”
On Saturday, Early will walk out of the home tunnel at Koch Arena before a game for the final time. In two years, he’s packed four seasons of production and memories, helping the Shockers to two of their greatest seasons.
“I don’t want to think about it too much,” he said. “I’ll miss playing here, but at the end of the day we’ve got a game to win.”