WICHITA, Kan. — All eyes are on Fred VanVleet.
Back at a preseason practice in October, VanVleet has stopped a defensive drill to show freshman guard Corey Henderson Jr. the proper positioning and footwork. VanVleet has Henderson turn his hips, then gets down in a defensive position, quickly chopping his feet and jumping toward the ball so Henderson understands what it's supposed to look like.
The Wichita State coaches stand by without flinching, and as VanVleet steps back, the drill resumes with Henderson executing the steps properly.
You hear a player is a "coach of the floor" so often it's almost cliche, but VanVleet is college basketball's version of Peyton Manning.
Last Saturday inside a fever-pitch Koch Arena against Northern Iowa, a loose ball off a chaotic possession found its way into the hands of VanVleet. The junior point guard held the ball on his side, allowed everyone to relax and then started pointing teammates where he wanted them on the floor without looking to the sideline for instruction.
"We all look at him to see what we're about to do next," Tekele Cotton said.
With the shot clock winding down, VanVleet calmly dribbled the ball toward the top of the key, noticed Northern Iowa's Wes Washpun cheating toward the lane and threw a bullet pass to an open Evan Wessel in the corner for a three.
"He understands our system to the level of Coach Marshall and us as a staff," assistant coach Greg Heiar said. "He understands the counters and the reads and when you're playing something one way, this will work. And he's always right."
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said he's given VanVleet the responsibility to audible a play call, a luxury Marshall says he's given to other point guards before, but "not to that degree."
"He's not like an assistant coach on the floor; he's a head coach on the floor," Marshall told Bleacher Report. "That's a little different. I trust him to run whatever he thinks is best."
VanVleet's rise from living in a rough area in Illinois, where his father was shot and killed in a drug deal when VanVleet was just five years old, to being one of the best point guards in college basketball is a great story, told last year by my colleague, Jason King.
Last May, VanVleet, only two years removed from high school, was asked to give the commencement speech at his alma mater, Auburn High School. He delivered a powerful speech that made it hard to believe it was coming from a college kid.
"Just an unbelievable human being," Heiar said.
But let's get one thing straight: VanVleet is much more than character and brains.
He's a bad, bad man with the ball in his hands.
In the win over Northern Iowa on Saturday, VanVleet had one sequence that belonged on a mix tape, crossing over through his legs four times before burying a jumper in Matt Bohannon's face after the poor guy almost fell over.
VanVleet has built his reputation as a great setup man—he is already the school's all-time assist leader and ranks in the top 10 nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio for the second straight season—but he's changed his game this season to evolve with the roster.
"From last year to this year, we don't have a Cleanthony Early anymore that can just throw the ball and get out of his way. I've taken more responsibility to be more dominant of the ball and the game," said VanVleet, who is averaging 16.0 points per game over Wichita State's last seven games. "I want to guard the best player. I want to guard whoever's hurting us, and on offense I want to be in control and try to get us in the best possible position."
VanVleet has his team in prime position entering the postseason. The Shockers are 28-3 with a Missouri Valley regular-season championship trophy already in their possession, and they are a serious threat to get back to the Final Four for the second time in three seasons.
Marshall does not have the juggernaut he had a season ago when the Shockers started 35-0, secured a No. 1 seed and ended up losing a classic in the round of 32 to Kentucky. That team had current New York Knicks reserve Cleanthony Early as a bucket-getter at power forward, veteran Nick Wiggins (brother of Andrew and now in the NBA D-League) coming off the bench and a litany of big bodies who could bang with the big boys like Kentucky.
This team lacks that kind of depth and size, but no team in the country can match the production and smarts of Wichita State's veteran backcourt of Ron Baker, Cotton and VanVleet.
"That's an invaluable asset in tournament play," Marshall said.
VanVleet's ability to see the big picture is what separates him from most college players and what makes Wichita State so dangerous in March.
Coming into this year, WSU's frontcourt was the big question mark. Marshall planned to go small with Wessel, a 6'4" guard at the 4, but it was imperative to develop another big man or two for depth. The Shockers had only one big man, Darius Carter, who had played a minute of Division I basketball.
VanVleet took it upon himself this summer to work out with redshirt freshman Shaquille Morris, the big man with the most potential to play meaningful minutes outside of Carter.
On July 5, when Morris didn't show up for an early-morning run, VanVleet took to social media to call him out.
"Just want all of twitter to know me and @Shaq_Morris had a date this morning and he stood me up!" VanVleet tweeted out with a selfie inside Wichita State's track stadium and a "#notthefirsttime" hashtag.
"He knew the buttons to push with Shaq," Marshall said. "It's very rare when young people now will call someone else out for not doing the right thing or not doing enough, and he can do that as a fellow player and get away with it.
"There's no 'oh my gosh you don't tell me what to do. You're just another guy out here playing.' He has that type of respect that he has earned from his fellow players."
Every move that VanVleet makes seems to have some kind of deeper meaning with an eye toward the future.
After a loss to Northern Iowa on Jan. 31, WSU's first loss in the Valley since the 2012-13 season, VanVleet emphasized the importance of not slipping up again before the rematch back in Wichita on the final day of the season with Northern Iowa.
Pride, of course, was a driving force. "You get beat like that, the kind of guys we have, it's been a bad taste in our mouth for a while," VanVleet said. But he also knew the importance of giving his younger teammates a meaningful game with a conference title on the line.
"For guys who haven't been here, you get to see what it's like to win a championship, how much fun it is, the type of plays necessary you need to make playing against a team like that," VanVleet said on Feb. 28, after the Shockers got their revenge on the Panthers, 74-60, to win the Valley outright. "You can't explain how valuable it is to get this type of competition, especially during the regular season."
The reason those players got to experience that feeling was VanVleet's ability to tactically dismantle one of the best defenses in the country.
In the first meeting, the Shockers had a hard time getting in the lane against UNI's pack-line defense. On Saturday, the Panthers were once again trying to keep Wichita State out of the paint by double-teaming the WSU guards when they would come off a ball screen and then cheating off Wessel in the corner to cover the roll man.
Wessel, a program player who does everything right, is sometimes shy to shoot. He uses a minuscule 11.5 percent of WSU's possessions when he's on the floor, according to kenpom.com. Wessel took only three shots in the first meeting in Cedar Falls, but he took eight shots on Saturday and buried three big three-pointers, two of which came off VanVleet passes.
VanVleet was in such control that almost every shot WSU took was an open one.
"I think he's got that type of feel and understanding of what we're trying to do and how a player can gain confidence from him making the pass to him," Marshall said. "When Fred passes you the ball, it's on target and on time, you know it's in rhythm and when he looks at you as the ball's in flight, those eyes say, 'you're open, shoot it.' "
The best Fred VanVleet story comes from Wichita State's upset of Gonzaga on the way to the Final Four in 2013.
VanVleet, just a freshman, had the ball in his hands with less than two minutes left, his team ahead by two and the shot clock winding down. He looked to the sideline to see if Marshall was going to call a timeout, and when he didn't, he measured up Gonzaga's David Stockton and started inching closer to the three-point line.
That's when it looked like VanVleet's nerves, for one time, got the best of him. He fumbled the ball to his left toward the WSU bench, but he grabbed it in time, looked at the shot clock and stepped into a three-pointer from about 24 feet out.
"And as it's going through the net, he literally turns over to me and winks as he holds his follow-through," Marshall said.
As this year's postseason begins—WSU opened with a win against Southern Illinois in the Valley tournament on Friday afternoon—few teams are playing as well as the Shockers. They've lost only once since the calendar turned and are now ranked No. 8 nationally.
In the minutes after winning the Valley regular season, Marshall bounced around like a groom on his wedding night. With music blaring inside the arena, he danced—an old-timey twist was his move of choice—and ran over to the student section to give high-fives, soon followed by VanVleet and then the rest of the Shockers.
It has been a magical run for the Shockers over the last three years—a Final Four, a perfect regular season and now back-to-back Valley titles. If you wonder why the coach hasn't left for a higher-profile job, look in that backcourt.
Again, this group isn't as talented as last year's, but the team that knocks off the Shockers in the NCAA tournament will have to play extremely well, because they will not beat themselves.
VanVleet will make sure of that. Heiar says that he's so well=studied he knows the favorite spot to shoot for every player on WSU's roster.
"They say guys have got 'old man' game," Heiar says. "He's got an old man mind and an old man savviness to him."
The Shockers know the joys of a March run, and VanVleet is prepared to make it happen again.
All eyes on him.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.