Fred VanVleet comes out of a city that doesn’t have the greatest of reputations. He comes out of a high school that isn’t known for its overwhelming success in athletics.
Yet, on Saturday night, on the biggest stage in college basketball, VanVleet carried the banner of Auburn High School and Rockford, Ill., proudly, waving it in front of a national television audience and a sell-out crowd of a little over 75,000 here in the Georgia Dome. He and his Wichita State teammates were playing against heavily favored Louisville in a national semifinal. For most of the night, they had the lead. In the end, a double-digit lead wasn’t safe. The Cardinals erased it and won 72-68, advancing to the national title game for the first time since 1986.
For VanVleet, even in defeat, playing in this setting was the opportunity of a lifetime. It was also a chance for him to put the spotlight on his home city and alma mater. He talked about that opportunity as he sat by his locker in a quiet corner of the Wichita State locker room surrounded by television cameras and tape recorders.
“We don’t produce a lot of high-level players, and growing up, I didn’t have anyone I could look up to on TV from Rockford,” VanVleet said. “It was big-time to be here and I am thankful for the opportunity to represent Rockford. I hope everyone is proud of me.”
While some questioned his decision to play at Wichita State, a school you don’t typically put in the same sentence as Final Four, there is no doubt his choice was a good one.
“It definitely paid off,” VanVleet said. “Not everyone backed my decision, and it’s good to prove people wrong. My family supported me, though, and we were fortunate to be one of the last four teams standing.”
Most college players will never see the light of day of a Final Four. VanVleet has already seen it once and he is motivated to make the Shockers more than a one-year wonder. Considering what he has done so far, it’s hard to bet against him. His future is bright.
“It was a good experience,” VanVleet said. “I got thrown into the fire and learned about what it takes to get to this level and win. It will give me a lot of motivation for next year.”
Brian Lester is a college basketball writer for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @BLester1993.