by Peter Walsh
Prior to a February win over Southern Illinois that catapulted the Wichita State Shockers to a 26-0 record, it wasn’t head coach Gregg Marshall who gave the team a pep talk. Rather, it was actress, tabloid star and Wichita native Kirstie Alley giving the team words of encouragement. Alley, who starred in the sitcom Cheers, would presumably be too old for a group of 18-22-year-olds to remember. But it’s quite the contrary; the team’s as big a fan of her’s as she is of it.
“You’ve never seen Look Who’s Talking Now?!” says 6-8 forward Cleanthony Early with a laugh. “We met Kirstie last year and we’ve been to her house for dinner as a team. We got the opportunity to play in front of a lot of [celebrities] in last year’s Tournament and now we see them at games all the time.”
Early, a senior from Middletown, NY, is a budding star in his own right. In that game against the Salukis, he scored 18 points in just 29 minutes. On the season, Early, who spent two years starring at Sullivan (NY)Junior College, leads the currently undefeated Shockers with 15.8 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. He is also the leader of an unheralded group, recruited by Gregg Marshall, that has mass appeal to go along with massive hoop skills. “There’s so much you can say about all of us, we’re all characters,” says Early, who, after being named All-Valley First-Team, showed out during Wichita State’s unreal run to the Final Four last season. “We got kids from Canada, small town Kansas, Atlanta, a lot of kids who were overlooked. That breeds a certain attitude about us to be cool, calm and collected.”
With a 34-0 record, national coverage and a celebrity in the stands, Early and company have flipped the script from underdog to top dog heading into the Big Dance. “Last year we went to the Final Four,” says Early. “Can we top that? I think we can, we have a chance. We’re playing with a lot of confidence right now.”
Get ready. A star is about to be born.