The Shockers shocked much of America by reaching the NCAA Final Four last season. Now they’re back for more.
Their victory Wednesday night at Illinois State raised their record to 20-0. It’s the best start in Wichita State history. A sign that the Shockers are move than handling the high expectations attached to them at the start of the season.
"We’ve played 20 games and we’ve won all of them, so I think they’ve handled it very well," says Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall. "They just seem to flourish in tough situations. Not every game has been an artistic win for us. We’ve had to really compete. We’ve had to get down and dirty and be tougher."
Van Vleet has been a key cog in the 20-0 start. He’s third on the team in scoring at 13 and a half points per game. He leads the team in assists and steals. Most importantly, he leads the Shockers in minutes played. His ability to run the offense and see the floor are gifts that don’t show up in the box score, but they impact the won-loss column.
"He’s a catalyst for this great start that we’ve had," says Marshall. "He’s a dynamite leader. He’s a wonderful person. A great student. Very intelligent, and that’s one of his characteristics that he carries that not everyone has. He’s so precocious. He’s wise beyond his years."
In what ways is Van Vleet a better player than he was a year ago? "More confident. My body is feeling better," says Van Vleet. "A little bit more athletic then I was. A better shooter, and just overall I think in every aspect I’ve gotten better. I’ve put in a lot of hard work, and the experience last year really helps me out."
It’s not simply what Van Vleet does on the court that stands out. It’s what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t make poor decisions, and he rarely turns the ball over. In 20 games he has only 26 turnovers. An unbelievable stat for a guy who’s constantly handling the basketball. Van Vleet was recently named the Missouri Valley Conference player of the week. That’s when he flashed his new found scoring ability by scoring 22 points against Northern Iowa and 17 points against Southern Illinois.
Does he feel he has to be more of a scorer this season? "Not really," says Van Vleet. "I just do whatever the game calls for. If teams are going to man-to-man and take away our other weapons I’ll step up and score and do whatever I need to win."
The Shockers had some outstanding weapons. Forwards Cleanthony Early and guard Tekele Cotton have NBA athleticism. And sophomore guard Ron Baker is a high energy player who can handle the ball and shoot. Van Vleet says the pressure of trying to live up to their Final four appearance last season doesn’t get to them. But the Shockers do have a bigger target on them whenever they go on the road as they did Wednesday at Illinois State.
"I know when Wichita State comes to town you get the best hit of every city you go to," says Van Vleet. "They don’t want us to win."
As of this past Monday the Shockers were ranked fifth in the AP Poll and 4th in the coaches poll. Did Van Vleet expect high rankings and Final Four appearances when he enrolled at Wichita State?
"I’d like to say I did, but I’d be lying to you," smiles Van Vleet. "I just thought I was making a good basketball decision for me. Things worked out. I think when you make the right decisions, and you go through life the right way that things will tend to work out for you.
On Thursday Van Vleet was named to college basketball’s Oscar Robertson Watch List. The Oscar Robertson Award goes to the National Player Of The Year.