You've of the team, but what about the players?
Over the course of the past two seasons, unquestionably, undoubtedly the best story in college basketball has belonged to Wichita State. The Shockers—the forgotten (and some would say unwanted) stepbrother of the monolithic Kansas Jayhawks—first captured the nation's attention last March, going all the way to the Final Four as a No. 9 seed.
A year later, the program became the first since UNLV to go through the regular season and conference tournament undefeated. Thirty-four straight wins later, and even the elderly lady who picks out her pools by colors knows the Shockers.
Players like Fred VanVleet, though, remain largely anonymous on the national scale. VanVleet, along with forward Cleanthony Early, has been at the heart of Wichita State's run into college basketball's consciousness. VanVleet is a smart, well-rounded guard who displays maturity well beyond his 20 years on both ends of the floor.
The sophomore guard leads the team with 5.3 assists per game while turning the ball over just 1.4 times a night, making him one of the nation's most reliable ball handlers. A bit of a liability as a shooter last season, VanVleet is shooting a shade under 50 percent for the season—including 44.7 percent from long range.
Also a first-team All-Defense selection within the conference, it's that two-way game that got VanVleet named the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year.
“That’s really amazing. I can’t put it into words right now,” VanVleet said recently told reporters. “Just the history you talked about is mind-blowing. That’s good company to be in. If that’s any indication for the future, I’m excited for what lies ahead.”
What lies ahead for VanVleet in the immediate future are games. Tournament history says they're guaranteed at least two and a virtual lock to make it to the Sweet 16. But this roster knows anything can happen. It was Wichita State last season that knocked off top-seeded Gonzaga en route to making school history.
Before check in with everything you need to know about VanVleet, perhaps the Shockers' most important piece in making sure history doesn't repeat itself in reverse, let's take a look at the overall bracket:
|Wichita State Media Guide|
- VanVleet was one of the 10 semifinalists for the National Player of the Year award.
- VanVleet credits his stepfather, Joe Danforth, with his success. As profiled by Bleacher Report's Jason King, Danforth used to wake his stepson up every morning at 5:30 a.m. and take him to the local YMCA to practice his game. VanVleet tells the story in a loving way now, but one could certainly get "stage dad" vibes if they didn't know Danforth's heart was in the right place.
- Also from the King piece: VanVleet's biological father was shot and killed when he was in kindergarten. When describing Danforth's tough-love nature, he in one breath acknowledged his stepfather could be mean, but also put everything in perspective the next: "He turned out to be a blessing. If he had never come along, who knows what would’ve happened to me.”
- What has happened is that VanVleet has become one of the nation's best playmaking guards. He's at his best with the ball in his hands and on the run, shooting 62.3 percent in transition opportunities, per Synergy Sports. In fact, VanVleet is incredibly efficient overall. He ranks in the 91st percentile of scorers nationally, averaging 1.094 points per used possession.
- For those looking ahead to the NBA—though VanVleet is decidedly not a typical NBA talent—the sophomore guard creates well in pick-and-roll situations. He ranks in the 84th percentile nationally, per Synergy, and is almost unstoppable when going to the right side of the floor.
- Somehow, VanVleet might be even better as a defender. Opposing players are shooting a dreadful 25.9 percent when VanVleet is their primary defender, including 26.7 percent in isolation. If there is any place he struggles a bit, it's when the Shockers are running zone—a rarity within Marshall's attack-first, ask questions later system.
- He has five siblings. That is not a small amount of people.
- Obligatory high-school highlights video set to a generic rap beat:
- He, like many of us, was tired of the nonsensical debate comparing LeBron James' 61-point game to Kobe Bryant's famous 81:
- Alicia Keys and Drake apparently have fans in Wichita:
Because the word prediction in and of itself is a judgment based on a series of probabilities, let's just get this out of the way: Wichita State is more likely than any other No. 1 seed to be ousted early. I have taken my medication today, so there will be no predictions of a Round of 64 exit.
From a pure talent and numbers standpoint, though, the Shockers are inherently more likely to be upset by a No. 8 or a No. 9 than any of the other national powers in their strata. You can only play the schedule you have before you, but going through an entire season playing only one good team (Saint Louis) is a bit of a problem. The national punditry has beaten that argument into the ground, but those who point the schedule discrepancy aren't wrong.
That said, there is way more NCAA tournament history pointing toward a No. 1 seed being an automatic Sweet 16 draw than any upset-related predictions. The Shockers play such a unique, well-rounded style that it's hard to fathom them losing in the Round of 32.
VanVleet is a major reason for that. He's never going to overwhelm the opposition with jaw-dropping numbers. His career-high with points is 22, a mark he hit four times during the regular season. Only once did VanVleet hit double-digit assists, and that came in a contest he hit just two shots. While the most decorated player on this roster, the superstar for Wichita State is the team-oriented atmosphere—as cliche as that sounds.
VanVleet needs to play well for the Shockers to advance past the Sweet 16, certainly. Their offense can crater a bit when he's not on the floor as a primary ball-handler, as evidenced most by a nail-biting win over Southern Illinois in February. But those are the issues that will come up as the tournament goes along; Wichita State should get through the first weekend just fine, with VanVleet playing his brand of basketball without problem.
As for the rest of the Big Dance, perhaps the second weekend will be when we find out just how high VanVleet's ceiling can go.
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