We’ll get to Wichita State-Kansas later.
Right now, let’s discuss Fred VanVleet. Because without him, it would be Indiana-Kansas on Sunday and WSU fans would be caravaning home, disappointed that the game they’ve been thirsting for slipped through the Shockers’ fingers.
VanVleet was VanTastic in the Shockers’ exciting, up-and-down 81-76 win over Indiana on Friday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. He scored (a career-high 27 points), he defended (IU’s Yogi Ferrell wasn’t quite the same when WSU coach Gregg Marshall switched VanVleet over to guard him) and he picked-and-rolled the Hoosiers to death.
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VanVleet is 6-foot magician. He kept taking the basketball to the hoop against Indiana, putting up crazy, twisted shots that went in, and then he had to guard the quickest player he’s ever had to try to guard.
When I saw him in a hallway 20 minutes or so after the game ended, VanVleet, who played 37 minutes, was moving along slowly.
“Does a game like this wear you out?” I asked.
“When you’re chasing a little guy like that around, of course it does,” VanVleet said.
But what about the poor Indiana players who had to chase VanVleet around?
He scored 19 of his 27 in the first half. Good thing, too, because some other key Shockers – namely Ron Baker, Tekele Cotton and Darius Carter – combined for just eight points.
Without VanVleet, that 39-36 halftime deficit would have been much worse. Perhaps too much to overcome.
“I just wanted to be aggressive,” VanVleet said. “I found opportunities in ball screens with the bigger guys that allowed me to use my quickness against them.”
Wait, did VanVleet allude to his quickness?
VanVleet’s not supposed to be quick. And he doesn’t jump well. His shooting is spotty. And he certainly can’t defend another team’s outstanding and quick guard.
All of the above have been knocks against VanVleet since he arrived at Wichita State, criticisms made mostly by national basketball “experts” who are paid to know the game.
But if you watch VanVleet play more than a couple of times a year, you come to realize that his best attribute is his brain.
VanVleet has the smarts to make up for anything he lacks athletically. He might not be the quickest guy, but he’s still quick. He might not be the best shooter, but he’s a good shooter.
And when VanVleet decides he’s going to the basket, good luck stopping him.
“I was getting in there to pass, really, and the first couple of times I went in there to pass and I noticed I could have shot it, I started to be more aggressive,” VanVleet said. “I was trying to get into the lane and get to the free-throw line.”
VanVleet made 9 of 10 free throws and his 159 for the season are more than any other Shocker. He’s not content to sit on the perimeter and hold up a hand to run a play. He’s always in the middle of the action, especially if it involves contact.
Indiana’s Ferrell, the epitome of lightning-quick, was tearing up the Shockers early. Cotton, the Shockers’ best defender, struggled to contain the Hoosiers’ guard.
So Marshall made a switch. For only the second time in Cotton’s four-year career, the coach switched Cotton to guard someone else and assigned VanVleet to Ferrell, who scored eight points in the game’s first seven minutes.
“Fred is really good at guarding point guards,” Marshall said. “Tekele is a great defender but I think at times he’s a better off the ball in a denial stance trying to create havoc on a shooter coming off a screen. Fred just understands guarding point guards a little bit better. Yogi was having his way and Fred, I thought, did a wonderful job. Besides scoring all the points he did, he defended beautifully.”
The only other time Marshall recalls switching Cotton off a player was at Northern Iowa on Jan. 31, when VanVleet took over guarding Wes Washpun.
VanVleet said his goal was to make it tough for Ferrell.
“All week, I wanted to be the one who started off on him,” VanVleet said. “But that’s the great thing about our team – we have unselfish guys and it would have been selfish of me to say I wanted to make it a mano-a-mono match, but I just wanted the opportunity.”
Some would say that’s crazy. Guarding Ferrell, who can shoot from deep and get into the lane with uncanny quickness, isn’t something anyone would want to do.
VanVleet loves to test himself. He relishes being underestimated. He was a preseason All-American whose season started unevenly, but it was always just a matter of time before he put it together.
“I don’t know if you enjoy chasing that guy around,” VanVleet said. “But I was up for the challenge. He’s probably quicker than me, but there were opportunities where I could use some of my advantages, as well.”
It’s rare that a player has a game so well-rounded, so dominant, that it’s hard to determine whether he was better and more valuable on offense or defense.
VanVleet is rare, all right. The Shockers are playing Kansas because of him.