It was a year and a half ago, on the Fourth of July, when Fred Van Vleet gave Wichita State an oral commitment to play basketball. He said the idea was that his AAU teammates back in Illinois would get more attention from the college scouts that way.
It worked, kind of. Van Vleet’s stock really rose after that. Soon, teams from the conferences like the ACC and Big 10 wanted to know just how firm Van Vleet’s commitment to the Shockers was.
Luckily for WSU, Van Vleet’s word was golden.
“The loyalty thing, growing up, was just embedded in me,” he said.
Van Vleet was having a quiet freshman season at WSU, but that all changed Wednesday night. He came off the bench to lead the Shockers with 17 points and nine assists with just one turnover in 35 minutes.
All were easily career highs. WSU held off a stubborn Drake team 71-56 and is now in sole passion of first place in the Missouri Valley Conference.
In his opening statement to the media following the game, Marshall called the game Van Vleet’s “coming out party,” and twice used the word “phenomenal” to describe his play.
“I think he’s going to be a tremendous floor general,” Marshall said. “He’s so cerebral. And tonight he showed a little bit of everything. He was able to change gears, change speeds, get into the paint, hit the 3 ball … Fred seized an opportunity.”
Van Vleet didn’t take a 3-pointer in the first half. He hit his first two attempts of the second, however, the second of which gave WSU a 49-33 lead with 13 minutes to go.
Twelve of his points came in the second half.
“He’s a passer, he’s a scorer – he’s just a patient point guard,” said WSU forward Carl Hall, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds. He lets the game come to him, and that helps. He’s never out of control. That’s what makes him so good. He played great tonight.”
Van Vleet came into the game averaging 3.4 points, with a previous game-high of nine.
“He’s poised and he’s composed as a freshman,” Drake coach Mark Phelps said. “He’s certainly been working on his perimeter shooting. He’s a pure point guard, and he’s obviously improving throughout the course of his freshman year.”
Marshall said he spent the summer of 2011 “sweating it out” that Van Vleet would honor his commitment, and breathed a sigh of relief when it became official on signing day during his senior year. Van Vleet has yet to start a game at WSU, but that might change after Demetric Williams had mobility problems after suffering a bruised hip on Wednesday.
“I think in all my years coaching, I’ve had one Rookie of the Year,” Marshall said. “… When you have Rookies of the Year, generally, that means you’re not very good, because you’re playing a freshman a lot of minutes. Fred Van Vleet’s in a perfect situation. He has come into a program that’s winning, he’s a winner, he has served his apprenticeship, and basically he’s ready to be the head guy.”
Van Vleet describes his freshman season as “a little bumpy” – and a sprained ankle earlier this year didn’t help – but he said he never minded sitting behind Williams and senior Malcolm Armstead, who scored 12 on Wednesday.
“Moments like tonight kind of bring it all to fruition,” he said.
WSU (21-5, 10-4 in the Valley) has won back-to-back games after losing three straight. The Shockers went on a 15-0 run late in the first half, holding the Bulldogs to 21.4 percent shooting before halftime, and held off a gritty Drake team in the second.
“We’re very fortunate to be in this position,” Van Vleet said.
He called it - Creighton lost at Northern Iowa on Wednesday – a mild upset that Marshall predicted. Sort of.
“I told (the players) tonight that there was a good chance, at 9:15 if we take care of business, that we could come back in this locker room being in first place by ourselves,” Marshall said. “I (was) just guessing that Northern Iowa (was) going to win, but I know they’re good at home. Maybe the players will listen to me a little better because they think I’m smart.”
Getting out the colors - The Shockers now must play back-to-back road games, at Illinois State and at Indiana State. He’s heard Indiana State is holding a “white-out” night when it host WSU.
“There’s probably a paint-the-barn-red or a barn burn or some gimmick (at Illinois State),” Marshall said, “but that’s the way it is.”