When it came down to deciding just who the best player in the Missouri Valley Conference was this college basketball season, there was only one acceptable choice. And in the end, the league’s coaches, sports information directors and media got it right, voting Wichita State Shockers guard Fred VanVleet as the MVC Player of the Year. VanVleet led the Shockers (31-0, 18-0 MVC) in assists at 5.3 per game, but he was also often the player to make the clutch play on offense and defense on those rare occasions when Wichita State was involved in a close game.
For the regular season, which is now complete, VanVleet was third on the Shockers in scoring at 11.9 PPG and he also chipped in four rebounds per game. VanVleet led Wichita State with nearly two steals per game and was among a trio of excellent free-throw shooters on the club, hitting at 83.5 percent. Teammates and fellow MVC first-teamers Cleanthony Early (84.8 percent) and Ron Baker (84.5 percent) were also players teams didn’t want to foul in the clutch. There can be no argument against the fact that VanVleet made his teammates better. Wichita State’s record answers that question emphatically. While he scored 15 points or more 12 times this season, he also had five or more assists on 19 occasions, including a season-high 10 in a 66-47 win over Illinois State on Jan. 8. His season-high in points was an impressive 22, and VanVleet did that three times.
VanVleet gained 22 first-place votes for Player of the Year, while Early picked up 12. No one else picked up more than two. The MVC Player of the Year honor is named for Larry Bird, who in 1979 led Indiana State to an unbeaten regular season before the Sycamores fell in the NCAA Championship Game to Magic Johnson and the Michigan State Spartans. VanVleet is the first MVC Player of the Year from Wichita State since Doug Miller in 2006 and the fourth overall (Antoine Carr, Xavier McDaniel). Besides VanVleet, Baker and Early, other MVC first-teamers included Northern Iowa junior forward Seth Tuttle, Indiana State guard Jake Odum and Evansville sophomore guard D.J. Balentine, who led the MVC in scoring at 22.3 points per game.
VanVleet, a 5-foot-11 sophomore from Rockford, Ill., and his teammates still have plenty to play for, of course. For all their success down through the years, the Shockers have not won the MVC Tournament since 1987. And then there’s the business of trying to better last year’s run to the national semifinals where Wichita State was beaten narrowly by eventual national champions Louisville. There’s more pressure on this year’s club given the unbeaten record, but VanVleet showed all season long that handling pressure wasn’t a problem. That’s the main reason Wichita State finds itself No. 2 in the polls and one of the favorites to win the national championship.