by Danny Hazan / @DeeHaze24
A true freshman delivered two of the biggest shots during Wichita State’s Final Four run—a pair of daggers against the West Region’s top two seeds Gonzaga and Ohio State. His high-arcing three pointer at the end of the shot clock with a minute and some change left against the Zags gave the Shockers a five-point lead, and his leaning jumper in the lane put OSU in a six-point hole with one minute left.
On the surface, you would assume the 5-11 point guard who averaged 4.3 points off the bench appears as one of the unlikeliest candidates to administer knockout punches to two college hoops giants during March Madness.
But that means you don’t know Fred VanVleet.
“Throughout my playing career, I had the knack for taking shots during big moments,” VanVleet said. “I’ve been lucky enough to make a few of them. Obviously that’s the biggest stage I’ve ever played on. Just to make that shot in that moment was huge—to hit that shot over John Stockton’s son, to beat the No. 1 seed, to go to the Sweet 16—it was just a memorable shot. It was a reiteration of all the work I’ve put in. Everything just played out the right way.
“I got the personal confidence in myself to make those plays. But I think it’s the confidence Coach (Gregg Marshall) had in me to put me in the game and play me big minutes. Those Tournament games mean a lot more than the regular season because it’s win or go home. At any time your season could be over, so the fact he trust me to be in there to help win those games when it’s do or die was a huge confidence boost. The rest was easy.”
VanVleet proudly represents his hometown Rockford, IL—where the ease in which he commands the game was bred.
During his All-State senior year, he led Auburn High to a 31-2 record and a third place finish in Illinois’ largest high school classification while averaging 21.3 points and 6.6 assists per game. With no player standing taller than 6-3 on his squad, VanVleet willed his squad past the prior season’s state runner-up, Warren, which featured a pair of 6-8 Division I recruits Darius Paul (Western Michigan) and Nate Boothe (Toledo).
He scored a game-high 27, and gave his squad the lead for good with a steal and coast-to-coast layup with under two minutes left to help punch the Knights’ ticket downstate.
Those heroics now pale in comparison to the success that he enjoyed during the end of March and the first week of April.
“As a kid growing up, where I’m from, you don’t really believe in things like that,” VanVleet said. “I like to think of things like where I could be instead of here. I don’t come from a great situation, but just to come from that and to be in those moments—being in L.A., playing in the Staples Center, going to the Final Four to play Louisville and (Rick) Pitino—even if I was sitting on the bench it’s crazy to sit back and think about. But once you make them your dreams and start trying to achieve them, those things can come true. I was just trying to give people back home a lot of hope.”
VanVleet’s emergence, and subsequent realized dreams, during the Big Dance may have been the culmination of an entirely new experience for him on the court. Having played essentially every minute of every game on every team he had been on prior to college, VanVleet took a backseat to fifth-year senior Oregon transfer and starter Malcolm Armstead.
With an honorable mention All-Missouri Valley Conference player in front of him, and sporadic minutes, it took VanVleet some time to adjust to his new role. He finally broke out for 17 points and 9 dimes in a 71-56 win over Drake on February 13, and it helped prep him for the increased minutes he ended up seeing a month later in the Tourney. His best games to follow were against Gonzaga (13 points, 3 assists, 1 steal) and Ohio State (12 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals).
“I just started to find myself and get better confidence,” VanVleet said. “My shot started falling for me a little bit more. I think in that (Drake) game it just clicked for me in the right way. I started off well, then one of our guards went down with an injury so I knew I’d be in game for big minutes. I was pretty productive and that gave me a sense of what I could do and my potential. It gave me confidence going forward.”
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall clearly had the confidence to have VanVleet on the court when it mattered most in the Tourney, so it’s no shock he gleams at his progression and the outlook of the squad for the rest of VanVleet’s stay.
“Fred VanVleet is one of the more precocious freshmen I’ve ever dealt with,” Marshall said. “He’s a coach on the floor, which goes without saying. His maturity, his leadership ability are as good as I’ve ever seen any freshman in 28 years have. He’s just a great young man.
“He’s been loyal, even after picking up BCS [interest] in the summer before his senior year after committing to us. We just love having him in our program. We’re looking forward to him being a feature guard for the next three years. He and Ron Baker together should be quite a combination for the next three years.”
Since Rockford hasn’t had a high-major player since 1998 Boylan graduate Damir Krupalija (University of Illinois), VanVleet seemed destined to end the trend thanks to his unique ability to play at whatever tempo he chooses and control a game. As a point guard in high school and on the club circuit, VanVleet displayed an uncanny ability to use his handle and play angles in order to draw two defenders before making the next play which usually ended in an open shot for someone else.
Possessing all the qualities a prototypical point guard could boast except for elite athleticism, VanVleet never got serious high-major interest and chose Wichita State over Kent State and Northern Illinois before the summer evaluation period entering his senior year. Like all great point guards can see, he was a few plays ahead of everyone else.
“Wichita State was serious and I saw the potential,” VanVleet said. “Obviously I didn’t predict we’d go to the Final Four in my first year, but I just saw what they can do and that the brand of basketball they play wins. I’m a stubborn guy. Everybody around me wanted me to wait through July to talk to the high major schools. I took that with a grain of salt. I understood why they wanted me to do that, but I just wanted to do things my own way. It was good vindication that it worked out for me in the right way. I felt like I made a good decision at the time—nobody else did. Now everybody is on the same page as me.”
Next up for VanVleet is getting on the same page with First-Team All-MVC forward Cleanthony Early and other key players from the Shockers’ Final Four squad such as sharp shooter Ron Baker and defensive-ace Tekele Cotton as the probable full-time starter.
“You have to earn what you get, but with the players we got coming back I think I have a good chance to be a starter and take over the program for the years to come,” VanVleet said. “I just have to put in the work and keep getting better. Having the experience of this year will help me so much next year. [The starting job] should be mine to lose.
“We have a good core group of guys coming back, so we’re going to try and do some damage again next year. This year we fell short of our goals within the conference, but we got the greater goal of going to the Final Four. I think we’d trade the conference stuff in for that any day. At the same time, this group we’ve got coming back set our sights on trying to take the conference over. We just have to go out there and perform.”
With his first season and Big Dance heroics under his belt, and an impending dramatic increase in minutes on the horizon, VanVleet will fall back into the floor general role he’s used to. As he’s proven before, going out and performing hasn’t been a problem.
Photo credit Jeff Tuttle.