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Early helps Wichita State stay perfect

2/6/2014

It continues.

The streak. The unblemished campaign. The possibility of perfection.

The idea that 24-0, still-playing-angry Wichita State will finish the 2013-14 regular season without a loss becomes less incredulous by the day.

A snowstorm created travel problems for the fourth-ranked Shockers, who didn’t reach Terre Haute until Wednesday morning. But it didn’t seem to impact the team during its 65-58 win at Indiana State.

It wasn’t easy, though. Per ESPN Stats & Information data, Wichita State lost the rebounding battle for only the second time this season, and its nine forced turnovers was its second-lowest tally of the year.

Indiana State's Manny Arop hit a deep jumper at the buzzer before the break, when Wichita State had just a one-point lead despite maintaining a nine-point advantage earlier in the half.

In the second half, Ron Baker helped Wichita State quiet Arop, who had 13 points in the first half and just three points after halftime. With 10 minutes to play, the Shockers had a comfortable double-digit lead, but the Sycamores didn’t break.

The game wasn’t sealed until Cleanthony Early (19 points, five rebounds) finished a three-point play with 1:03 to go. Early, a member of the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25, drove from the top of the arc, drawing a foul as he scored. The free throw gave Wichita State a five-point cushion.

Chadrack Lufile made four of six free throws in the final 43 seconds. Game: over. Spotless record: preserved.

Ken Pomeroy gives Wichita State a 78 percent chance of defeating Northern Iowa on the road on Saturday. He gives the Shockers more than a 90 percent shot at defeating their final six Missouri Valley opponents after that. Even if that happens, the Shockers will still endure criticism.

Until its postseason journey begins, Wichita State will be scrutinized. If the Shockers lose in conference play, the naysayers will call them frauds. If the Shockers enter the postseason without a loss, those same people will put an asterisk next to their noteworthy accomplishment.

Not that the Shockers worry about negative opinions regarding their accomplishments thus far -- they weren’t exactly favored to make the Final Four last season after finishing second to Creighton in the MVC -- but that’s not something that they’ll overcome until the NCAA tournament arrives.

But they have Early now. And if he’s on the floor, Wichita State can play with anyone.

He scored 15 points in the second half Wednesday night. In a contentious game that included a quiet outing by the typically sound Fred VanVleet (2-for-5 shooting, two turnovers, six points) and foul trouble for Baker (eight points), Early gave the Shockers a much-needed boost.

The Shockers can finish the regular season with a perfect record. And they can make a return trip to the Final Four because Early can guide them there. But not by himself.

Baker, VanVleet, Tekele Cotton (14 points), Early and a fleet of capable reserves are all valuable to this program. But Early can be a closer when the Shockers need one, whether they’re playing MVC competition in the coming weeks or high majors in the Big Dance.

Early had 24 points, 10 rebounds and a block against eventual national champion Louisville in the Final Four last season. He was an honorable mention on the Associated Press preseason All-American squad this year. He has the highest offensive rating in the MVC (114.9) among players who’ve participated in a minimum of 25 percent of their team’s possessions, per Ken Pomeroy data.

Early is capable of doing what he did on Wednesday against top-25 teams. He has already proven that.

That’s significant in this polarizing discussion about Wichita State, a team that’s clearly equipped with individual playmakers who aren’t simply products of Gregg Marshall's system. You don’t tussle with Louisville and dismiss Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State because you’re lucky or just abiding by a system.

You do it because you have the athletes to compete at that level.

Early and his teammates can play with anyone. He’s more than a great tale -- he arrived in Wichita after a stint at a low-level junior college. He’s the next-level competitor who will lift the Shockers in the tough matchups they’ll encounter the rest of the way.

If you don’t believe in Wichita State’s defense (ninth in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy data) ...

If you don’t believe the Shockers have faced adequate competition (won at Atlantic 10-leading Saint Louis) ...

If you don’t believe VanVleet will maintain his poise against elite guards (he entered Wednesday’s game ranked third nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio) ...

Then believe this: Early would be a star on any level, in any league, against any opponent. And the players around him anchor a squad that can clearly compete with the best.

Don’t believe it?

Let’s see how you feel when Early & Co. end up in your favorite team’s region on Selection Sunday. Maybe you’ll change your mind.