Unbeaten Shockers roll into MVC tourney as dominant choice
WICHITA, Kan. -- With their votes due this weekend, Bradley's Geno Ford had an easy solution for how Missouri Valley coaches and media should decide the conference's player of the year this season.
"I think Gregg should hand that award out," Ford said.
After all, who better to decide who the most valuable player is on No. 2 Wichita State than its own head coach, Gregg Marshall? The Shockers have already wrapped up the league title and, with a win over Missouri State on Saturday, can enter the Valley tournament with a 31-0 record.
No team has entered its conference tournament unbeaten since St. Joseph's in 2004.
"It will be one of two or three guys on their roster. I don't see how anybody else could get player of the year," Ford said. "Not to put (Marshall) on the spot with that kind of stuff, but he knows it better than we do."
The Shockers haven't had the league's player of the year since Paul Miller in 2006, but that drought should come to end when the winner is revealed Tuesday. In a sign of just how dominant they've been, the three players most often mentioned as candidates -- forward Cleanthony Early and guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet -- all play for the conference champions.
That's why Ford was willing to throw away his vote and let Marshall decide, and why Indiana State head coach Greg Lansing said the award should go to the entire team.
"Just an unbelievable group, how hard they work, the matter-of-factness of how hard they play," Lansing said. "My vote would be the team."
Early, the preseason player of the year, is the Shockers' leading scorer and rebounder, and at 6-foot-8 with an ability to hit the outside shot their best NBA prospect. Baker has turned into their blood-and-guts leader of Wichita State, even though he's only a sophomore. The mop-haired throwback had 22 points in a signature win over Saint Louis.
Then there's VanVleet, also a sophomore, who orchestrates the show. The point guard is among the best 3-point shooters in the Valley, not to mention one of its best ball-handlers.
"I voted for VanVleet," Southern Illinois head coach Barry Hinson said. "He's the head of the snake. I just love the kid, love how he plays, love how he leads the team. I love how every time there's a big basket that needs to be made, he gets it or gets it to someone to make it.
"I'm always going to vote for the short guys," Hinson said, laughing. "Love the short guys."
Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson even threw out a fourth member of the Shockers, Tekele Cotton, as a player of the year candidate. Their defensive stopper is often overlooked, but Jacobson said Cotton would be a star anywhere else.
"He plays his role for their team as good or better than anybody in the country in that same role," Jacobson said. "That's why I'd include him."
There are other candidates for player of the year, of course.
Evansville guard D.J. Ballentine averages better than 22 points, easily tops in the Missouri Valley, and teammate Egidiju Mockevicius is the league's top rebounder. Desmar Jackson of Southern Illinois and Walt Lemon Jr. of Bradley have also had standout seasons.
But none of them plays on an unbeaten team.
"I'm just trying to decide which dart to throw between Early, VanVleet and Baker," Loyola head coach Porter Moser said. "I think they've got a lot of candidates."
So how about it, Gregg? Who's the best player on your team?
Who's the best player in the Missouri Valley?
"I think it's going to be Cle or Fred or Ron, and I think we have four guys who should be all-conference with Tekele," Marshall said, "but that's just me."