WICHITA STATE'S Cleanthony Early has a unique name, but a standard game. He boards, defends and finishes around the basket. The Shockers stunned the sport by reaching the Final Four in 2013 and now, Early's return combined with a full season from Ron Baker, has produced a lengthy undefeated start and a belief that the one team from the state of Kansas with a better chance to reach the Final Four may actually be in Wichita, not Lawrence.
Andy Katz: Why did you decide to go to a junior college close to your New York home town after a year at Mt. Zion Christian Academy in North Carolina?
Cleanthony Early: I had interests from a number of Division I schools. But that summer my older brother [Jamel Glover] drowned in the Hudson extension. He was swimming, jumping off the docks. I've done it. He had done it. He was like a father figure to me. Maybe not the best, but he was like one. He protected me, had my back and gave me comfort. I didn't want to be too far from home after that and that's why I chose a junior college 45 minutes [Sullivan County CC] from home.
Katz: How did you hear about his death?
Early: I was actually at my friend's crib. It was a summer day. It was so sunny. And then as soon as I got that call, the weather changed. It got nasty out. There was a storm. We had to go identify the body up river where they had recovered it. It was awful. I can see it like it was yesterday.
Katz: How did that affect you?
Early: My mom was a single mom. Everything wasn't all peachy. But there was love. I play for him. I play for my mom, my grandma, people that have my back. I don't take anything for granted. I live for a purpose.
Katz: Why did you choose a black and white avatar photo for your Twitter account with you in deep thought, head down, arms outstretched at the top of Koch Arena?
Early: It's a paradox for me. The black and white photo with me in deep thought. The positioning of the photo shows me in deep faith.
Katz: Why do you start the day by tweeting "Thank God for Today?"
Early: I've done that every day since prep school. It's something so simple. It is a reminder to be appreciative and grateful for what we have. I just want to Thank God for today.
Katz: What's the origination of your unique name?
Early: My dad's name is Cleveanthony. I'm not really sure. But my mom decided to just take off the V and the E.
Katz: During your recruiting trip to Wichita, you got stuck there due to Hurricane Irene. How did that influence your choice over San Diego State?
Early: It was crazy. I was here an extra four or five days. I went past the glamour of the two days when they do the meet and greet. I was a part of the program. Everyone thought I was going to San Diego State. I had so much fun out there. But there was too much temptation. I wanted to be at a place that was under the radar. I wanted to go somewhere where we could shock the nation. I'm from a big city and I wanted to go where there weren't a lot of options.
Katz: What's it like to play for coach Gregg Marshall?
Early: He's intense. You've got to buy in and lock in. There is a method to the madness. You've got to believe in the system as much as you believe in yourself. If you don't buy in, you don't play. If you're not diving on the floor, you're not getting playing time. Practices are intense, a dogfight. Not too many people practice like that. We guard each other really well.
Katz: What's it like to play at the Round House?
Early: It's so compacted. You can barely hear each other. We have to scream to each other to talk. Not a lot of teams are used to it.
Katz: Why did you come back instead of head to the NBA draft after the Final Four?
Early: I had so much more to learn and improve and understand. I knew we could be so much better than we were. I knew I could increase my stock. I knew I could get in a position to think like a pro. I know I can compete with anyone playing the game of basketball.
Katz: How did the Final Four change Wichita State?
Early: People knew us before but now we can't go anywhere without people knowing us. Even when I go back home now, everyone knows me. They want to take pictures, sign autographs every time we go out.
Katz: Why is this Wichita State team better than the Final Four team?
Early: I feel like we can score better than that team. We rebound just as good and our defense is just as good. We've got enough talent and can go punch for punch with teams.
Katz: What are the chances Wichita State can go undefeated in the regular season?
Early: I think they are pretty high. I can't say it's guaranteed. But if we can continue to work then the only team that can beat Wichita State is Wichita State. We can't take plays off. We have enough leaders to do it. If everyone stays healthy, what's stopping us?
Katz: How much do you miss Creighton in the Missouri Valley?
Early: I miss Creighton a lot. I would love to play those guys. Doug [McDermott] is a great kid. They're all pretty cool. I would love to play them again.
Katz: How much does Wichita State want to play Kansas?
Early: Everyone wants to play Kansas. I'm sure Kansas would love to play us. But everyone knows there are politics involved.
Katz: How realistic is it that Wichita State can win the national title?
Early: We have some of the top players in the nation. We just need to stay hungry and stay humble and continue to fight. I don't see nothing stopping us. I feel comfortable with our five, six, seven, eight or nine. You don't have to have the better team in March Madness. We want to play angry. We feel we belong. We're Wichita State.
Katz Korner is on Tuesdays 1-4 p.m. EST on ESPNU, running through the national championship game in Arlington, Texas.