CHICAGO — On what was maybe the last night he'd play college basketball in his home state, Fred VanVleet's slow walk to the Wichita State locker room was interrupted by a man holding a two-foot-long replica $100 bill. A headshot of the Shockers' senior point guard occupied the spot usually reserved for Ben Franklin. In Fred We Trust, it read. The man held out a marker and VanVleet signed the amateur artwork before pausing for a picture. He didn't hesitate at any of this, as you might expect from someone who's been around long enough to see it all.
A few steps later, as winds snarled outside Loyola's Gentile Center, the Rockford, Ill., native was immersed in warm smiles and well-wishes from more than 30 people lingering by the locker room door. VanVleet smiled for more pictures, made more small talk, signed more autographs and literally kissed babies, pecking his 2-year-old cousin Adelyn on the forehead. It was near 11 p.m., almost an hour after Wichita State's 76–54 win over Loyola, when VanVleet at last scooted out of sight to take a shower.
The end will come soon enough for the Shockers star and his team's rousing four-year run. No reason to hurry toward it.
"It's been tough for me, when I actually sit down and think about it," VanVleet said late Wednesday, before he dove into the de facto reception line. "I never try to worry about it at game time. But on off-days, or right before we practice when we're stretching, times like that, you think about it. You think about the journey you've been through, especially with the guys that have been here four years, five years, and we've shared so much. It's definitely a special time. All good things have to come to an end at some point."
When they exited the arena, VanVleet and backcourt mate Ron Baker—as well as fellow seniors Evan Wessel, Anton Grady and Tom "Bush" Wamukota—were two days away from their last regular season game, a home date with Illinois State on Saturday. Players come and go every spring, of course. But this is different. The Shockers' entire year has had the feel of a final season of a long-running, beloved television show, with the usual angst and nostalgia welling up as the finale approaches. Rarely are players so steadily identifiable for four seasons as Baker and VanVleet have been. They've won 101 of the 114 games they've played together. They reached a Final Four in 2013. They started the next season 35–0 before losing to eventual national runner-up Kentucky in the Round of 32 of the NCAA tournament, then reached the Sweet 16 last season by upsetting in-state rival Kansas. This year they orchestrated only the second Missouri Valley Conference championship three-peat in the last 46 years. They've helped turn the Shockers from irascible underdogs to national luminaries.
So it's probably fitting they go out with a fight.
The Shockers are in line to make the NCAA tournament. Still, at 22–7 overall, with a 15-2 league mark and an RPI of 47, a berth is not guaranteed. They may have to reach the conference tournament final, at least, to feel safe on Selection Sunday. It's easier to put off thoughts about the end when you have credible worries about right now. "When I was out, those losses we took—people don't forget about them," VanVleet said, referring to three November nonconference defeats to Southern California, Alabama and Iowa that he missed with a hamstring strain. "You wish they would. But nobody cares about that. We understand that. We're just trying to finish up strong and we know people may not give us the benefit of the doubt, so we have to control our own destiny. We've felt that pressure throughout the year."
Auspiciously, they are as equipped as ever to put that pressure back on the opposition. Gregg Marshall's teams regularly play exacting defense, ranking as one of the nation's 25 most efficient units in all three previous years of the Baker-VanVleet epoch—and in the top 15 the past two seasons. They're even more stifling in 2015–16: Wichita State is No. 2 in adjusted defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com. And the brute simplicity of their heavily man-to-man scheme—they've played zone just five percent of the time—should travel well into March.
There was no gimmickry that goaded Loyola into 35% shooting and a skimpy .806 points per possession on Wednesday. No bizarre defenses or full-throttle presses have led to Wichita State holding conference foes to 56.8 points per game and 35.8% shooting. This all happens because the Shockers are sound, athletic and long. Mostly, VanVleet and Baker are savvy enough to impose themselves on opposing backcourts instead of waiting on the action. "You have five guys on the court willing to dig in and play defense like we teach," Baker said. "Making guys score tough twos is a pretty good defensive mindset we have as a unit."
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After the game, Marshall declared one of his two guards merits conference defensive player of the year honors. Both have posted career-best defensive ratings in their final campaign: Baker at 87.3 and VanVleet at 88.7. "Our defense is the best in the league again," the Shockers coach said. "Both of those guys have been really good. [2015 MVC defensive player of the year] Tekele Cotton was the best, he got the biggest assignment, but those guards have been really good all along."
They have to be, because the offense is less impactful than usual. Wichita State is 58th nationally in efficiency on that end. Both Baker and VanVleet's personal numbers have ticked down just a bit: Their respective raw scoring has slipped slightly from 14.7 and 13.6 last year to 14.0 and 12.1 this season. Their personal efficiency numbers have ticked down to 118.6 and 117.5, respectively, after peaks of 125.2 and 134.9 as sophomores. It was a good sign that the Shockers scored 76 points on the road with only two double-figure scorers on Wednesday, and Baker did post a tidy 19 points on just 10 shots. Nevertheless, it might be best to just suffocate teams for the next few weeks, instead of relying on the balance and proficient shooting to last.
That's as good a plan as any for two seniors that got this far by getting some dirt under their fingernails, scratching to national prominence after starting without a major-conference scholarship offer between them.
As he rubbed some moisturizer on his palms late Wednesday, Baker insisted it doesn't feel like the end is nigh. He suspected that might be due to his strict focus on the next game, and not what comes after. VanVleet acknowledged emotions will swell on Saturday—"I'm being realistic about that," he said—but he also reiterated that neither he nor Baker like to lose, and preventing that requires attention to the task at hand.
But the end is coming. And the uncertainty before the end creates some urgency for two players otherwise wired to stifle the stress. "You just apply the urgency to the younger guys, make them understand," VanVleet said. "I've been in their shoes before. It's not the same feeling when you know there's a next year."
Unless the Shockers are placed in the Midwest Region and reach the Sweet 16—thereby earning one of the four slots in Chicago's United Center—there will be no next game on pseudo-home turf for VanVleet. On Wednesday, fans behind the Shockers bench held aloft a "ROCKFORD PROUD" sign, referencing VanVleet's hometown about 90 miles away. When Marshall finally pulled him from the blowout with 89 seconds left, VanVleet received a standing ovation. Marshall waited to send a sub to the scorer's table until his point guard drained a three-pointer from the wing one possession earlier; it was VanVleet's only field goal of the night, and he would go on a high note near home, if his coach could help it.
Then it was off to sign giant fake $100 bills and smile with loved ones. If it was a distraction, it was happily obliged. No need to hurry. Fred VanVleet already knew how he expects the end to go.
"We just want to do damage," he said, aiming to finish these four years the same way he started them.
The five best games of the weekend:
No. 11 Louisville at No. 12 Miami (Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN3). Of course this is a battle between teams tied for second place in the ACC.
No. 9 Arizona at No. 22 Utah (Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN). The Utes are a half-game back in the Pac-12 with just one game after this, a home matchup with Colorado. Oregon, the Pac-12's first-place team, finishes with two road games at the Los Angeles schools and Arizona (a half-game behind Utah) has Stanford and Cal at home.
No. 10 Maryland at No. 20 Purdue (Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN). Bigs on bigs on bigs in this one. The Boilermakers trot out 7-foot A.J. Hammons and 7'2" Isaac Haas, while the Terrapins march out 6'11" Damonte Dodd, 6'11" Diamond Stone and 7'1" Michal Cekovsky.
No. 7 North Carolina at No. 3 Virginia (Saturday, 6:30 p.m., ESPN). A loss would wipe out the Cavaliers' hope for a third straight regular season title and any chance that they might ascend to No. 1 in the national polls.
Gonzaga at BYU (Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN2). A win and a St. Mary's loss would give the Bulldogs the No. 1 seed in the West Coast Conference tournament ... while a loss means they'll possibly have to get by two teams that swept them to get an NCAA tournament auto bid.
The top five meals that I can remember from road trips over the years:
MB Post. The bacon dust Manhattan alone wins the day. But then you get the bacon cheddar buttermilk biscuits, the roasted Brussels sprouts and really anything else, and you settle in with friends like two blocks from the ocean in Manhattan Beach, Calif.
Lucky's Café. The idea is to get brunch outside of Cleveland. Instead you get waffles that taste like dessert and pecan-crusted bacon sprinkled with brown sugar. And then you slip into unconsciousness.
Foreign Cinema. I believe I had a fried chicken here that was the sort of fried chicken you'd expect from James Beard-nominated chefs. But the setting—high ceilings, strings of lights, actual movie screens at a restaurant in San Francisco—is worth the visit itself.
Cactus Club Cafe. Locations: Multiple in Vancouver. Short rib sandwiches: Multiple in my belly.
Pecan Lodge. Thanks the expertise of Sports Illustrated colleague Andy Staples, I have eaten beef rib from Pecan Lodge in Dallas, and I know that while every man dies, not every man truly lives.
(Sixth man: Grill 23. It's a Boston steakhouse. And every city has steakhouses. And every city has good steakhouses. That Grill 23 stands out speaks to how fantastic it indeed is. An Old Fashioned, a filet and sides fit for entire battalions to share.)
Two on Two
Each week, The Shootaround will talk to a pair of assistant coaches for a brief scouting report on a key upcoming matchup. This week focuses on two high-efficiency guards who meet Saturday in Tallahassee, Fla.: Notre Dame's Demetrius Jackson (16.4 points per game, 46.6% shooting) and Florida State's Malik Beasley (16.2 points per game, 48.1% shooting).
Dennis Gates, Florida State assistant coach: "[Jackson] has one of the highest basketball IQs, combined with explosiveness and athleticism and shooting ability. Going downhill, once he gets his shoulders by your hip, it's impossible to stop him. Being in one of the most efficient offenses at Notre Dame, it's hard to just concentrate on him because those other guys can definitely hurt you. He does a great job of balancing it out, getting his other teammates involved. He can finish at the basket. A lot of guards can't do that. He can do pretty much anything to hurt you. He does exactly what he feels his teammates need him to do. He's never out of control, to say the least. He's a pro, man. He's a definite pro. He reminds me of Terrell Brandon and Jay Williams. You have to understand what he does and that you're not going to be able to stop him. It's a team game. One person shouldn't be able to beat you in a team sport. Our thing is team defense and making it more difficult, make him score from different spots than he's normally accustomed to scoring in. But more importantly, a guy that savvy, with a lot more players around him, it's hard to guard because their offense is so spread and the court is so open."
Martin Ingelsby, Notre Dame assistant coach: "The more I watched [Beasley], I've been really impressed with how efficient of an offensive talent he is, and he can score at all different levels. He shoots almost 40% from the three-point line, he can attack the basket, and he's shooting like 80% from the free throw line. He plays at a good pace, he plays at a good tempo, he doesn't really force things, even though he has to score for them to be successful. He has a good basketball IQ and he takes good shots. I don't want to say he's a dynamic athlete, but he's a good enough athlete to get to places on the floor and knock down shots, and they run stuff to get him touches. His ability to knock down jump shots—I knew him as a high school prospect, but for him to shoot from the three-point line consistently throughout the year, in the nonconference and ACC play, that's been the one thing I've been most impressed with. Yeah, he's turned it over a little bit, but they're asking him to do a lot and he's involved in a lot. You don't see a duo like him and [freshman guard Dwayne] Bacon that are as involved in the offense as those guys are. The biggest thing for us would be just being able to guard your guy. We have a great challenge that really want to play four guards around a big guy, spread you out, ball screen and roll, and let their offensive talent attack you."
Court of Opinion
I understand the philosophy behind assessing technical fouls for spiking the ball. We can't have regular temper tantrums on the floor. And that is fine ... for fifth-graders. I can now count on one finger the amount of times I've seen a technical delivered to a college basketball player for this act: Once, to Kentucky's Isaac Humphries, last Saturday, in a one-point game at Texas A&M, with seconds left in overtime. And it's at least arguable that Humphries didn't mean anything untoward by it. Either eliminate the spike-the-ball tech, or just don't call it anymore. It rarely happens at the college level anyway, and if it does, it hardly seems worth making a fuss over.
Fans or coaches howl for techs after a ball-spike because they know it's a rule. They don't do it because they're offended. And since taking offense is the reason for the rule in the first place, it seems like a rule worth ignoring.
My first trip to College Station, Texas, revealed the wonders of a Mad Taco beef short rib taco on tamale bread in all its stomach-distending goodness. It also revealed you can attend a matinee showing of Deadpool for $4.75. This was nearly as amazing.
One of the underrated built-ins to a road trip is a solo movie venture. (Especially when no one will see said movie with you back home.) There are people who might argue, "Oh, but movies are a communal experience, and after, you can talk about film and performance and stuff." These people are wrong. You're supposed to be quiet during movies anyway, and you can find someone to talk to about it later. Give me a loosely populated theater at an odd time, with a ticket price straight out of 1995. Arm me with contraband Twizzlers sneaked in to avoid snack counter markups. And let me bask in a dude in red tights chopping bad guys' heads off for 90 minutes. With, I might add, plenty of time to grab a late-ish dinner and a B-52 India Pale Lager afterward. That is Maximum Effort.