How do you watch basketball? No, this is a real question. How do you watch a basketball game?
Do you sit there rooting for your team, seeing things through rose-colored glasses? Is that the method you choose? Or do you watch as an impartial observer, looking at the greatest games and trying to understand the reasoning behind the best basketball in the country.
What if you watched basketball through the eyes of those on the floor? What if you filtered the game through their lens, understood the game based on how they are playing, how they are impacting their teams?
Step into the shoes of Wichita State's Fred Van Vleet for a moment. Understand that this was a top 100 recruit in the country coming into his freshman season. Then understand that Van Vleet was a tangential part of that Final Four run. He wasn't one of the named players, he was almost a side show.
That doesn't mean he wasn't a building block that teams would love to have, teams that play on ESPN, with no number after the station name. He could have been one of those players, but he likely wouldn't have played his freshman year. He would have been sitting at the end of the bench, and possibly, he would have had a few minutes per game that didn't mean anything.
Instead he had trial by fire, subbing for Malcolm Armstead. Welcome to the big time, kid. Hope you don't need a new set of pants.
No, Van Vleet didn't do that. He played and played well -- for a freshman. He played like a guy that was going to be the future of a program. He played like he belonged somewhere else, not Wichita, Kansas.
But here he was, and then on Saturday, here he was again, cutting through defenses, making the offense happen.
He doesn't need flashy stats to prove how much he means to this Shocker team, even as he fills the stat sheet night after night.
The things he does do show up there, but not in the ways that get highlights on SportsCenter. Otherwise, we would be celebrating guys like Long Island's Jason Brickman a lot more often. No, we will only hear about Van Vleet when the season ends, when his ratios are so ridiculous you need to take notice. You won't hear about it on any given night, just when you realize you should have been paying attention all along.
So when he scored 15 and dishes for three more hoops, you start to take notice, but only if you have ESPN2 tuned in. Even the announcers may not realize what they are watching, but then again, maybe there is hope if the No. 5 team in the country is playing on national television.
But this wasn't all about Fred Van Vleet. This was about pressure and more pressure, and even more pressure.
That pressure focused on Jake Odum, maybe the heir apparent in the Valley with the departure of Doug McDermott, Creighton, and a host of seniors off teams that last year dominated the headlines. Sure, Cleanthony Early was on a bunch of preseason All-American lists, but missing was the context to know that there was a kid in Terre Haute who was just as good or even better.
Entering the game, Odum may have been the most valuable player again this season, expanding his reach on the team, even when he shouldn't have had to. Back when we last caught up with the Sycamores, his role had changed into more of a director, allowing his fellow players on the floor to help him more and more. He didn't need to be as important as last season.
But that had changed in the last couple of weeks. Now that the Valley season had started, everyone else took a step back. Odum didn't need some kind of odd journey around the league and celebration of his skill; his teammates just seemed to be giving him that.
While Justin Gant's emergence was something that had helped the team, he hadn't been the same lately. Manny Arop was tied for the team's lead in points, and yet even that wasn't as impactful on the floor, because he was missing shots, and being less present on defense. He wasn't Jake Odum-lite. But then again, most people aren't.
So the Wichita State gameplan was to pressure Mr. Odum, and it worked. He had to distribute, and he found Arop; he found Gant.
But when the players who had most helped Odum change his game into one that put him into a director's chair had the ball, they couldn't find a way to make it happen.
Arop shot, miss. Arop shot, miss. Gant shot, miss.
Gant didn't score until there was a little more than 12 minutes left in the ball game. Wichita State was up 20 points by then. Arop scuffled to just four points.
And so Jake Odum couldn't help his team. He couldn't make good on that value that he had so built over the course of the season. He couldn't do more than hit four free throws and just a single shot from the floor.
That is impressive. But isn't just the pressure defense; that is just part of the story.
Welcome to the Roundhouse, aka the Charles Koch Arena. Get ready to be surrounded by black, yellow, black, yellow, black, yellow. It is as if you are allergic to bee stings and a swarm of bees are closing in around you. There is no escape; no water, no blanket to hide under. This is nothing that can save you from this full sensory assault on the court and in the stands.
Indiana State is a good team, maybe potentially one that could make a Sweet 16 run.
That is how good Wichita State is, and how much they can embarrass you.
There have been some places that have doubted the Shockers, that think having a close call against a team like Missouri State -- one that won't be in the NCAA Tournament, that won't be challenging for the conference title -- is a bad thing. They don't understand playing in the Valley on the road.
They don't understand that if the Valley were renamed the ACC, and if Wichita State had had the success they had that everyone would be giving their best against them. They don't understand that this is what Duke faces every night, and that the only difference is that the teams Duke plays have the talent to make it seem like it isn't the same thing.
Wichita State gets the best from its opponents. To doubt them based on a close win, or even when they lose a conference game -- if they lose at all -- is a mistake. This is not just one of the best five teams in the country. This could be the best team in the country.
Consider that when coming into this game, I ran HOOPWAR on the Shockers. They had three players on pace to earn the equivalent of more than a 6.0 HW30 score. Heck after this one, they might have three players looking at more than a 7.0 HW30 score.
Van Vleet, Ron Baker, Early: those are the core. Those are the players that could drop into the starting lineup for Syracuse, or Arizona, or Michigan State. They could have this success on a team whose name resonates beyond the borders of Kansas, beyond the scope of the teams that play on ESPN, the proper.
Consider that Early disappeared for most of the game. He sat on the bench with foul trouble. He couldn't score because he wasn't playing.
And yet, Wichita State still dominated.
When Baker tweaked his leg and sat down, he caught his breath. He came back onto the court and scored. And scored. And scored again. Remember when Wichita State made its run in the NCAA Tournament last season? Of course you do. Remember how much Ron Baker meant to that team, a team that looks so different than it does now? Yeah, he is still that player.
He might even be better than that player, because he knows how to save it, how to make it count for more than just a fleeting moment in a game. He knows how to sustain that attack and score, and score, and score, even if the defense adjusts and says "Woah, we need to stop this kid".
That is the new Ron Baker, one that turned half a season of really impressive play into a half of a season with really amazing play. That is this Ron Baker.
You see, you don't need all three of these guys -- Baker, Van Vleet, Early -- to be at their best. You just need the flashes of brilliance that make this team dangerous. Heck, take one of the trio away and you still have a team that can make an opponent look ordinary on any given day.
That is how good this Wichita State team is. They can find a way to win, and win impressively against any opponent on the floor. They have the ability to win every single game that they play, just like any of the teams that they share the top of the rankings with. The only difference is that they have the chance to do that. They have the chance to make history.
But if they don't, that is not a knock on the best team we may have seen in a long while. And stress that team. That is not a knock at all. Even the best teams that we have seen have taken losses -- think Kentucky's title run, when two teams managed to trip up the recent champions. This is that kind of team.
They just don't wear a jersey that says history to folks outside the Valley. They don't have a name that rings of long term success outside the Valley.
They will. They will.
People will know this team, and the word will spread across the wheat fields of Kansas, and Illinois, and Iowa. Eventually that word will reach the masses. This is a team that can win it all, and won't be a surprise like Butler was when it made the final game two years in a row.
This is a team with the chops to belong, and should be turning heads now. Not in March. Now.
A 68-48 win over a very good Indiana State team is a start to making that happen. Maybe now people will understand that this team, this is one to watch.
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