For all of his excellent play this season, Fred VanVleet remains largely anonymous on the national stage. In fact, if it were possible for a No. 1 seed to be an underdog, VanVleet might be the perfect player who embodies the spirit and the national attention of Wichita State.
The Shockers head into their round of 64 matchup with Cal Poly as overwhelming favorites but most waiting for the shoe to drop. Preseason No. 1 Kentucky likely looms in the round of 32, a team with more natural gifts but infinitely less cohesion. If that wasn't bad enough, defending champion Louisville looms as a potential Sweet 16 opponent following the worst seeding line that I've seen in my lifetime.
Given the so-called Bracket of Death, some think Wichita State won't even make it to the second weekend. That may be the case. But for now, VanVleet and his teammates temporarily get to bask in the glow of being a No. 1 while defending their Shocking (pun entirely intended) run to the Final Four last season.
Last year's team returns leading scorer Cleanthony Early, a gifted forward whose national fame gained in March has made him the face of this run. Everyone knows the name Cleanthony Early—quite possibly because he's the first person in human history to be named Cleanthony (#falsefacts).
Also returning are Ron Baker and Nick Wiggins, the latter of whom became famous simply by proxy of his brother.
Lost amid all the preseason hype and previews was the ascent of VanVleet into the starting lineup. And all he's done is be the team's best and most consistent player all season.
The 5'11" sophomore comes into the NCAA tournament as one of the nation's least-appreciated superstars. Moving into the lineup spot created by Malcolm Armstead's graduation, VanVleet topped his predecessor's numbers across the board, averaging 12.1 points, 5.3 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game.
Much like Armstead, coach Gregg Marshall trusts VanVleet to provide a steadying hand to the offense. Few non-transition scoring actions within the Wichita State offense begin with anything but an initial pass from VanVleet, and what's arguably made the offense more deadly this year is his intelligence and efficiency.
While Armstead often struggled and shot himself and the Shockers into a funk, the opposite is true for VanVleet. He hasn't missed more than half of his shots in a game since Feb. 11, a 78-67 win over Southern Illinois that was far closer than the score indicates.
In foul trouble and struggling with injuries, VanVleet scored just three points in that contest as the Shockers needed a late run to bring the deficit to double digits.
And really, that's just about the only way Cal Poly can hope to have a chance: Get VanVleet in foul trouble, watch the offense struggle in his time on the bench and ball out from distance.
Given the last couple weeks, it's hard to say that's impossible. Cal Poly entered the Big West tournament with a 10-19 record.
The team had lost nine of 11 games, had little semblance of a rhythm on either end of the floor and looked destined for its first losing season since 2009-10.
Then all hell broke loose. The Mustangs ran off four straight victories, including one-possession wins over Cal State Northridge and UC Irvine. They dominated an overmatched Texas Southern team in the First Four by taking advantage of lackadaisical defensive rotations and moving the ball brilliantly around the perimeter.
Cal Poly hasn't really done anything different either. It's played the way it always has, only with a much higher efficiency rate. After averaging just 0.863 points per possession over their first 29 games, the Mustangs are up to 1.011 during their winning streak, per Synergy Sports (subscription required).
That may not seem like a huge difference, but prorate that over the course of 100 possessions, and it's nearly 15 extra points.
The changes are stark in both half court and transition, and it's seemingly come down to slowing down a bit and creating better shots. Already a glacially paced team, Cal Poly is averaging nearly five fewer possessions per game since the conference tournament, per Synergy. The result has been a seven-point uptick in two-point percentage and an extra 5 percent from distance.
OK, now here's where we get sober. Of the four teams Cal Poly has beaten, only one could be classified as a half-decent defense. UC Irvine, the most impressive of its triumphs, was No. 23 in defensive efficiency.
Wichita State is a different animal entirely. The Shockers, relentlessly attacking their opponents, were 10th this season defensively and used their team defensive principles to suffocate opposing offenses. VanVleet isn't the strongest or quickest defender on the roster, but his voice is always active in calling out rotations and picking up opponents in transition.
Chris Eversley and Dave Nwaba, Cal Poly's two best players, will likely be guarded by players other than VanVleet. His size is prohibitive against both of the bigger forwards. But communication and closing out on the perimeter will be key to keeping the game in check.
The onus in starting the offense, though, rests squarely on VanVleet's shoulders. Cal Poly has seen just as much of a renaissance defensively as it has offensively, holding opponents below 40 percent over the last four games. Opposing teams are scoring 10 points less over a 100-possession period, per Synergy.
There's no compelling argument over a long sample that says Cal Poly will be able to stop Wichita State's offense, though. The Shockers are well-rested coming off their conference tournament, and VanVleet is playing at such a high level it's ultimately a moot point.
VanVleet has torched opposing teams in pick-and-roll situations all season, with more than a third of his opportunities coming out of the set. He ranks in the 85th percentile nationally and ranks even higher when you filtrate the stats among high-usage players, per Synergy.
While Cal Poly has done a solid job of keeping PnR ball-handlers at bay all season, its experience is so limited (7.9 percent of opponent possessions) that game-planning on short notice is going to be hard.
What's more, while these are two mid-majors, let's not discount the talent discrepancy here. Early and VanVleet and possibly even Baker would beat the best player on Cal Poly's roster. Wichita State might not get to the Final Four again, but it won't have any trouble Friday.
Fred VanVleet Projected Stats: 15 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 5-of-9 FGs
(All stats via Kenpom unless otherwise cited.)
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