Monthly Archives: December 2013

Some 2013 loose ends

First and foremost, Happy New Year to everyone who follows this blog or any of the many offerings at Kansas.com. Thanks very much and I hope 2014 is an even better year for you.

It’s been a very good year for me. The birth of League 42, our baseball league that we’re starting in Wichita to serve underprivileged kids and their families, has been one of the most exciting and rewarding ventures of my life. I hope to have much good news to report concerning League 42 in the coming year.

I’ve enjoyed working with this group of people whose dedication and interest in League 42 is as great as mine. Those folks include my wife, Debbie, who has been a strong advocate for kids during her entire life and has worked for Big Brothers/Big Sisters for the past 30 years. Anything good that I’m involved with is a direct reflection on her influence.

I would love to list the names of everyone involved with League 42, but that would be too big of a task and I would undoubtedly forget people whose service to this cause has been influential. You know who you are and I have to believe this endeavor has been as enjoyable for you as it has been for me.

* I’ve also been working on the Shocker Invitational for the past few weeks. We have some big plans for this fictional group of 16 teams, made up of 80 Wichita State players from the present and past who will clash in an upcoming XBox 360 tournament that wills start in February.

I’ve been breaking down the 16 teams, picked mostly at random, on my blog and will continue to do so as we approach the start of the tournament. We have some exciting ideas as to how to play this out so I hope you’ll become interested, especially if you’re a Wichita State basketball fan. And at this point, who isn’t?

Let’s just say that we hope to play out this tournament in a public venue that would allow Shocker fans to see what we’re doing. We haven’t finalized plans yet but we’re working on it. Stay tuned.

* My wife and I are having dinner this evening with some very good friends and our son and daughter-in-law. Then we’re coming back to the house to ring in the New Year. Maybe. If we can make it that long. It’s about 50-50, I would say.

* On New Year’s Day, I have a little work to take care of. But the plan is to see a couple of movies, starting with “Saving Mr. Banks” and ending with “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” I had not been introduced to the Hobbits before seeing “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” last year. It was enjoyable.

* I’m looking forward to covering the rest of the college basketball season. All three of our state teams have intrigue and of course it will be fascinating to see how far Wichita State can get. Do the Shockers have a chance for a second consecutive Final Four? Sure, why not? They’re ranked No. 8 and depending on how Missouri Valley Conference play goes – and I happen to think it will go very well for WSU – could earn a 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. I also expect Kansas to continue to improve throughout the season under Bill Self and with such a young group of players. And Kansas State has shown me something. It’ll be interesting to see how the Wildcats fare against George Washington today in an afternoon game, set to tip shortly as I write my blog.

* Again, have a very Happy New Year. Don’t get too crazy tonight. I’d invite you over, but we have such a small house. See you in 2014.

 

The NFL fires away

The day after the end of the NFL’s regular season is always such a joy, isn’t it?

Four coaches have been axed today and one, Cleveland’s Rob Chudzinski, didn’t even make it to Monday after the Browns lost their final game after having

Former Cleveland Browns coach Rob Chudzinski.

Former Cleveland Browns coach Rob Chudzinski.

lost a bunch of games before that.

Chudzinski didn’t even last a full year with the Browns, who seemed ecstatic to give him his first chance as a head coach on Jan. 11. OF THIS YEAR!

“I believe we came back with the best person to lead the Cleveland Browns to the kind of winning format that we want to have in Cleveland and we all expect to have,” owner Jimmy Haslam said on the day of Chudzinski’s hiring.

Haslam had a different tone in announcing the firing to reporters Sunday night.

“If you reflect back to the last time I spoke with you all in a public manner, it was the opening day of camp,” Haslam said. “You all asked the predictable question of what will be a good year. … What we would say is that it was really important that we showed improvement during the course of the season. Specifically, we talked about being better in the last three games than the first three games.

“There was a feeling that we were not getting better. Yes, we had a young team. But as we reflected on it, a young team should get better. We simply did not feel that was happening.”

Sounds like the kind of owner we’d all like to work for, huh?

Hiring Chudzinski was obviously a risk. But Haslem allowed no time to see if there could be a reward.

How is Cleveland supposed to get better with the kind of personnel the Browns put on the field? Cleveland has no quarterback, which forced Chudzinski to play mix and match for most of the season.

The team’s best player, wide receiver Josh Gordon, often acts like he wants out of town. And who could blame him?

I don’t know the Browns. I don’t follow the Browns closely. Maybe Chudzinski had lost control of his team. Maybe he was in over his head. Maybe he was clueless.

But from the reaction of some anonymous players, it doesn’t sound like this firing went over well.

We are so dysfunctional,” one anonymous player told Michael Silver of NLF.com. “These billionaires need to pick somebody and stay with them. These aren’t girlfriends…”

Another player told Silver that the Browns organization “was a joke.”

Of course we all know that. Still, it’s shocking to read those words coming from a player.

Browns fans are some of the most loyal in the NFL. They have no other choice, really.

Since a playoff appearance in 2002, the Browns are 56-120. Only Oakland and Detroit have been worse.

Chudzinski was seen as the coach who could change Cleveland’s ways. He was the team’s offensive coordinator in 2007, when the Browns were 10-6 and just missed the playoffs.

Coming back to Cleveland was his dream come true.

But seven consecutive losses to finish the season were his undoing. And the Browns again are in the market for a coach.

They’ll find one. Surely, someone is desperate enough to take this job.

 

 

Friday musings

* I’ve spent so much time the past few days talking and writing about whether Kansas and Wichita State play basketball that I’ve made myself sick of the subject. I need a few days or even weeks to re-charge my passion on this issue.

* Bottom line: Wichita State and Kansas should be playing on a semi-regular basis. Five games in 10 years, something like that. Same with Kansas State.

* My wife is already fretting about Christmas being over, and it’s not even here yet. I’m not a big Christmas guy and I think it’s mostly because I just don’t like cold weather. Especially cold, cloudy weather. And especially cold, cloudy weather when it gets dark at 5:15.

* So I guess I’m fine with Christmas. Just not a big fan of Christmas weather.

* We put up exterior Christmas lights at our house for the first time in a few years. I like them. They make me happy when I pull into my driveway.

* I’m not a Chiefs fan and never have been. But I do admit the NFL season is more fun when the Chiefs are relevant. I just finished a column on the Chiefs’ top 10 all-time skill position players and it was fun to research and write. I think I’m a little bit into the Chiefs.

* Fox Sports Midwest is showing a condensed version of five of the best St. Louis Cardinals games from the 2013 season on Christmas day. I hope to set aside a little time to watch. I miss baseball tremendously during the off-season and regularly tune into the MLB Network during these winter months.

* No doubt about it, baseball is my favorite sport. But college basketball is right there, which makes my work at this time of the year enjoyable. I love watching college basketball in person and am looking forward to covering the Georgetown-Kansas State game Saturday afternoon at Intrust Bank Arena. I was going to head up to Lawrence for the KU-Georgetown game, but the weather forecasters scared me out of that one. Now watch nothing happen weather wise overnight or on Saturday morning.

* I don’t think “Homeland” had a stellar season and I was disappointed that Damien Lewis’s character, Nicholas Brody, was killed in the finale. But I think Brody’s death could help the series, which needs a different direction. My disappointment had nothing to do with the acting. I just thought the story got out of whack.

* I’m hooked on Showtime’s “Masters of Sex.” It’s no place for prudes.

* My son, Jeff, turns 31 on Saturday. That’s a little hard for me to believe. I cannot be this old.

* When was the last time the Wichita State basketball team had four players as good as Cleanthony Early, Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Tekele Cotton?  Maybe the 2005-06 Sweet 16 team with Paul Miller, P.J. Couisnard, Paul Miller and Sean Ogirri?

* I’m stunned that guard Conner Frankamp isn’t playing more than he is at Kansas. I figured he would be a big factor as a freshman and that he would overcome nerves, lack of size and inexperience by the sheer will of his make-up. And I would not be surprised if Frankamp does start to play more and make a difference for the Jayhawks.

* I’m looking forward to seeing some City League boys basketball after the break. I especially want to see the new gym at North, though the Redskins are off to a slow start.

* It’s a big movie week next week. My wife has green-lighted a movie a day, or thereabouts. Tops on the list is “American Hustle,” which is getting amazing reviews. David O. Russell (the O stands for Owen) is the hottest director out there. And how can you not be enticed to see a movie that stars Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner?

* I hope you’re enjoying the Shocker Invitational, which I’m writing about on my blog. It’s a fictional 16-team tournament made up of Shocker players from the present and past, randomly (mostly) thrown together. I’m working with a couple of guys on devising a way to play these games on a gaming system and will share more information about that in the near future. It’s just fun for me to write about the history of Shocker basketball and this tournament is giving me that opportunity.

* Lanny Van Eman and Ron Washington are two of the most underrated Shockers of all-time. Both play for Team 3 in the Shocker Invitational.

* There will be an announcement soon – perhaps as early as Saturday – concerning the 2014 class into the Shocker Sports Hall of Fame. As is the case every year, I’m hoping against hope that the selection committee has finally done the right thing and will induct former WSU center Robert Elmore, who played for the Shockers during the mid-1970s.

* Wichita city council member Jeff Longwell was on “Sports Daily” on Friday and talked about what a big year 2014 will be for Wichita. I hope our citizens get behind the city’s efforts to make this a better place to live. And one of the ways to do that is to renovate Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, which is badly in need of repair. L-D is a crown jewel of Wichita and needs our attention.

* Have a Merry Christmas, everyone.

 

Shocker Invitational (Team 3)

Every time I break down one of the teams in the Shocker Invitational – the 16-team tournament will commence sometime after the first of the year on a Play Station or X-Box near you – I fall in love with the team.

It’s no different with Team 3, which I believe will be viewed by most as an also-ran but is a team, with the right coach, that could make a push.

The right coach?

Let me explain.

This team includes 6-foot-8 John Smith as its center and 6-7 Jamie Arnold as its power forward. I’ve been around Shocker basketball for a long time, and these are the only two players I remember who stormed off for the locker room during a game.

Smith did it during a game against Tulsa during the 1992-93 season, a game I was covering. I’ll never forget it because I spent all of the second half waiting for him to emerge from the locker room instead of watching the second half of a game Tulsa was winning.

Arnold had two productive seasons in 1994-94 and 1994-95, but battled injuries in 1995-96, then clashed with new WSU coach Randy Smithson in 1996-97 and lasted only 22 games before being dismissed from the team. I can’t remember whether Arnold left the floor during a game or didn’t return to the bench after halftime of a game, but he was seen later eating a hot dog in the stands behind the Shockers’ bench in the second half.

I never regarded Smith or Arnold as bad guys. I regarded them as victims of some bad circumstances as they were Shockers during a time in history when the team was historically bad.

But they were good players.

Smith, a top recruit out of Columbia, S.C., averaged 12.8 points and 7.4 rebounds as a freshman in 1991-92. Good stuff. But he fell off statistically and emotionally as a sophomore, averaging 10.6 points and 5.8 rebounds. And then he was gone, transferring to VCU.

Arnold, from Oak Park, Mich., averaged 11.7 points and nine rebounds as a freshman in 1993-94 and improved to 12.6 points and 9.7 rebounds as a sophomore. He looked to have NBA talent.

But Arnold had a mind of his own and it didn’t always mesh with what the coach was thinking. He finished his WSU career with 1,046 points and 749 rebounds while shooting 50.1 percent from the field.

Smith and Arnold, thus, are wild cards for Team 3. Can they mesh with their teammates? Are they willing to sacrifice? Or are they going to take their balls and go home if things go awry?

Their teammates are good ones.

Ron Washington, one of the most underrated Shockers in history, is at the small forward.

Washington, who played at WSU from 1965-69, played at Parker High in Chicago and put together outstanding back-to-back seasons for the Shockers in 1967-68 (20.6 points, 8.2 rebounds) and 1968-69 (20.6 points, 10.3 rebounds).

Washington was a spindly 6-5, 160 pounds but he could shoot and he was creative in finding shots. And despite his lack of bulk, he used creativity to rebound, too.

Murry, now with the New York Knicks, had an outstanding Shocker career playing for Gregg Marshall from 2008-12. He averaged 11.1 points and passed Warren Armstrong as WSU’s career leader in assists with 430. Murry also ranks second all-time in steals and 11th in points.

But the best player on this team might be its point guard, Van Eman, who averaged 14 points per game over 80 games from 1958-62.

Van Eman is famous for making a game-winning shot against Cincinnati in 1961 that ended a 27-game Bearcats winning streak. He played at a time before assists were an official statistic.

Van Eman, from McKeesport, Pa., was a career 44.7 percent field-goal shooter and made 82.6 percent of his free throws (261 of 316) as a Shocker. And he was usually at his best in Wichita State’s biggest games.

This is a good team, isn’t it? Van Eman and Murry are a terrific backcourt combination. Washington can really score and rebound.

Smith and Arnold are the wild cards. But both have the talent to really help Team 3. I know this: I wouldn’t want to draw this team in the first round, provided nobody storms off the floor for the locker room in the middle of the game.

 

It’s time for KU to play Wichita State

I was not around for the 1908 showdown between Kansas and Fairmount College – now lovingly known as Wichita State – inside the Henrion Gymnasium on the Fairmount campus. And even if I had been, I probably would have chosen to leave at halftime since KU was on its way to a 65-15 win.

It would be 33 years before the two teams met on the hardwood again, in 1941. I wasn’t at that one, either. Again, the Phog Allen-coached Jayhawks won, 54-39.

KU and Wichita State have met 14 times in basketball over the years and the Jayhawks have won 12. The only exceptions were the Battle of New Orleans in 1981, when a Mike Jones shot late propelled the Shockers into the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament with a 66-65 win over Kansas. You might have heard about it. In fact, you might receive a T-shirt commemorating the victory for Christmas, almost 33 years later.

Wichita State also beat Kansas, 54-49, at Levitt Arena in 1987.

Otherwise, the series has been all Jayhawks.

I covered the game in New Orleans for The Eagle and I covered the three most recent games, from 1991-93.

Those three resulted in KU blowouts by an average margin of almost 38 points. Since Kansas’ 103-54 win over the Shockers at Allen Fieldhouse in 1993, the two teams haven’t met. And if KU coach Bill Self has anything to do with it – and unfortunately, he does – the Jayhawks and WSU will never set foot on the same court again.

You know my view on this. Kansas and Kansas State should be playing Wichita State on a consistent basis. This is a great basketball state and Wichita State has enough tradition to warrant a series with KU and K-State.

Self sees it differently. And apparently so do the powers that be at Kansas State because the Wildcats haven’t haven’t played Wichita State since 2003.

For Self, it’s apparently about Kansas not having anything to gain by playing Wichita State. Whatever that means.

For Kansas State, who knows?

I’m not privy to the discussions that happen in private. I don’t know who has a hang up with who. I don’t know if Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall has made an attempt to talk to Self about this. Self says he hasn’t been approached by Marshall and there’s no reason for me to doubt that.

This matter frustrates me. I realize Wichita State became a patsy for Kansas in the past five games between the two teams. KU won them all by at least 20 points.

That’s no fun.

But the Shockers aren’t coached by Mike Cohen and Scott Thompson now. And if Self thinks the Jayhawks have nothing to gain and everything to lose by playing Wichita State, he’s thinking about only himself. And nobody else.

Basketball fans want this game. Right? You do want this game? Can you imagine the coverage and excitement a KU-WSU game would elicit? I’m not saying the world stops spinning if Kansas and Wichita State don’t play basketball. But I am saying the world is a better place if they do play. Right, China?

One game at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. One game at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita. One game at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence.

Is that not fair? Is that not accommodating enough for Kansas?

A WSU-KSU series, by the way, should be a straight home-and-home at this point, no ifs, ands or buts.

But Wichita State should make allowances for a series with Kansas. And from what Marshall has been on record saying recently, he’s willing to do so.

From what I can tell, one man stands in the way of this happening. His name is Bill Self. And of all the coaches I’ve ever been around, he’s one of the most logical, sensible, forthcoming, bright, articulate.

His viewpoint on WSU-KU, though, makes me so mad I could scream.

This is about basketball in our state. Kansas is in the discussion with North Carolina, Kentucky and Indiana as the best basketball state in the country. We love our hoops. Always have, always will.

But it’s embarrassing to have these two outstanding teams that won’t dance together. Lawrence and Wichita are separated by a 150-mile stretch of turnpike. The basketball teams at KU and WSU are separated by a solar system.

Self won’t budge, bless his heart. In his eyes, there’s nothing to gain and everything to lose.

But Phog Allen played WSU four times. Ted Owens did it once. Larry Brown was at KU for only five seasons, but found it in his heart to play the Shockers three times. Roy Williams scheduled games against Wichita State every year from 1989-93. He later chilled toward playing WSU after the Shockers won a recruiting battle for Wichita Collegiate guard Maurice Evans.

The plug has been sitting in the same place for 20 years.

I don’t know what needs to happen for Kansas and Wichita State to play basketball against one another again. I do believe Self thinks he’s doing the right thing. I just wish he realized this is an issue that is bigger than any coach.

It’s about basketball in Kansas. It’s about basketball fans in Kansas. Please grab that plug and stick it back in.

 

Shocker Invitational (Team 2)

OK, I like this team. No doubt about it, I believe it’s a contender to win the Shocker Invitational, coming soon to a desktop near you. Or laptop, tablet, video screen – the options will be limitless.

Team 2 is a doozy, made up of center Nate Bowman, power forward Ron Heller, small forward Jason Perez, shooting guard L.D. Swanson and point guard Malcolm Armstead.

I like this team’s toughness. Its defense. It’s scoring ability. It’s versatility. I LIKE THIS TEAM!

Here’s why:

Former Wichita State center Nate Bowman (17) was a New York Knicks teammate of his ex-Shocker teammate Dave Stallworth (9).

Former Wichita State center Nate Bowman (17) was a New York Knicks teammate of his ex-Shocker teammate Dave Stallworth (9).

The 6-foot-10 Bowman played at Wichita State from 1962 through 1965. He was a key part of the Shockers’ Final Four team in 1964-65 until he was declared academically ineligible for the second semester. It was a huge blow, as was the fact that star forward Dave Stallworth had used up his college eligibility at the end of the first semester.

The Shockers, I’m convinced, would have won a national championship with Stallworth and Bowman. Without them, they were drubbed by Princeton and Bill Bradley in the national semifinals.

Bowman averaged 9.2, 12.8 and 12.4 points in his three seasons, to go with 7.6, 8.9 and 8.6 rebounds. He was also a talented defender who went on to play with the New York Knicks in the NBA, helping that team win a championship as a bench player in 1969-70. Bowman died in 1984, when he was just 41.

The 6-7 Heller, who played for the Shockers from 1958-61, still ranks ninth all-time in career rebounding average at 9.8 rpg. He’s also the No. 38 all-time scorer with 1,022 points.

As a senior in 1960-61, Heller averaged 17.4 points per game. He later was an assistant coach at Wichita State, a color commentator for Shocker games on both radio and television and the head basketball coach at Friends University before his death in 2006, at the age of 68.

Perez played on some so-so teams during his WSU career from 1996-2000, but was anything but a so-so player. His 1,839 points rank No. 5 in Shocker history and he is the last Wichita State player to average 20 or more points in a game (20.2 ppg in 1999-2000).

Perez was also an outstanding passer (13th in career assists) and defender (first in steals.) He also ranks fourth in three-pointers, with 196. And only six players – Xavier McDaniel, Antoine Carr, Cleo Littleton, Cheese Johnson, Aubrey Sherrod and Dave Stallworth – made more field goals in their Shocker careers than Perez.

That’s a heck of a frontline. And the guards for Team 2 aren’t bad, either.

Let’s start with Swanson, who doesn’t get enough credit for his senior season in 1994-95 when he averaged a team-high 14.6 points, 5.4 assists and 4.0 rebounds while playing 38.4 minutes per game.

True, it wasn’t a very good team, one that finished just 13-14. But Swanson, who specialized in buzzer-beating, game-winning shots, was a really good player for his two seasons after transferring to WSU from a Texas junior college.

Finally, there’s Armstead. He and Swanson are interchangeable in the backcourt for Team 2 because both can play the point.

Armstead averaged 10.7 points per game for the Shockers’ Final Four team of 2012-13 and was arguably the team’s best player during the second half of the season. He led WSU in assists and steals and became the team’s leader in his only season as a Shocker after transferring from Oregon.

See why I like this team? It’s loaded. And a definite contender in the Shocker Invitational.

Knicks

Lists, lists, lists

Hey, everybody. The holidays are near and I’ll be on vacation again next week (I use it because I have it). But I’ll be back on Dec. 30 and will be working through April.

Let’s knock out another lists blog, shall we?

Top 5 places I want to visit

1. Montana (the vastness of the state appeals to me for some reason)

2. Austrailia

3. Seattle/Calgary (The Pacific Northwest has mostly eluded me)

4. Dodge City (I used to go almost every year, but it’s been a long time and I miss it)

5. Myrtle Beach/Hilton Head, S.C. (Golf vacation. This one needs to happen soon.)

Five who have made me laugh the most

1. Don Rickles

2. Tim Conway

3. Johnny Carson

4. Richard Pryor

5. Foster Brooks (I was a fan of the Dean Martin roasts in the day)

Least favorite school subjects

1. Geometry

2. Chemistry

3. Art

4. Biology

5. Spanish

(Ed. note: As you can probably tell, I’m not very smart).

10 great Beach Boys songs (they’re in Wichita on Thursday night, you know)

10. Caroline, No

9. Help Me Rhonda

8. Barbra Ann

7. Sloop John B

6. God Only Knows

5. I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times

4. Wouldn’t It Be Nice

3. I Get Around

2. California Girls

1. Good Vibrations

Five radio shows I enjoyed

1. Don Imus

2. Phil Hendry (made me laugh out loud a lot)

3. Art Bell (I drive late at night frequently coming home from games)

4. Larry King (old school)

5. Don and Mike

Favorite flavors

1. Strawberry

2. Cherry

3. Orange

4. Lemon

5. Caramel

 

Early wake-up call

Cleanthony Early played OK for Wichita State in the Shockers’ first 10 games. But no more than that and certainly not like the preseason Missouri Valley Conference player of the year and honorable mention All-American he was picked to be.

Let’s just say all is forgiven.

Early played his best game of the season Tuesday night when the Shockers needed him most. He scored 26 points and took over a game that needed someone to take it over in the second half, scoring 20 as WSU beat Alabama, 72-67, in Tuscaloosa.

Crimson Tide guard Trevor Releford was doing his impression of an All-American, too, with 22 points and six assists. He’s the best player the Shockers have seen this season and it’s a testament to Wichita State that not even Releford’s great performance could knock the Shockers from their unbeaten perch.

It’s 11-0 now with home games coming up against North Carolina Central and Davidson. Then WSU begins Missouri Valley Conference play on the road against Southern Illinois on Jan. 2 before home games against Northern Iowa and Illinois State.

How long can this unbeaten streak last?

While you’re thinking about that, let me heap more praise on Early. He has too often been lackluster this season. It’s not that he hasn’t been playing hard, it’s just that he hasn’t been as energetic as he showed at times last season.

And like he showed Tuesday night when he fought for inside position, fought through screens defensively and fought on the boards. The Shockers are a significantly better team when Early fights. And on a night when Ron Baker battled foul trouble and a sore ankle, Fred Van Vleet spent the last six minutes or so of the first half on the bench with three fouls and Tekele Cotton made only 2 of 9 shots, Early had his dukes up.

Early, too, spent a good chunk of the first half on the bench with two fouls, where he joined Baker and VanVleet for the final six minutes of the first half.

It must have seemed like 60 minutes to Shocker fans and to Gregg Marshall, WSU’s coach who has been consistent in not risking a third first-half foul for one of his players.

The Shockers led, 22-17, when VanVleet drew his second foul and took a seat on the bench with Baker and Early. It was sheer will that allowed WSU to still hold a one-point lead at halftime. Give credit to Cotton, who despite his poor-shooting game still found plenty of ways to contribute, not the least of which was filling in at the point with both VanVleet and Baker on the bench.

Cotton had a huge offensive rebound late and junior center Darius Carter made a key basket with 34 seconds to play that put Wichita State up by three, 69-66. There were contributions, too, from Evan Wessel, who had five rebounds, three on the offensive end. One of those resulted in a first-half basket during a time when Alabama was surging.

Mostly, though, this win was about Early. I think the preseason hype affected him and Marshall spoke to that after the Shockers’ win at Saint Louis more than two weeks ago. Now, perhaps, Early will settle down and start to play the way he is capable of playing.

Not that he’s been bad. He hasn’t. He went into Tuesday night’s game as Wichita State’s second-leading scorer. He just hasn’t been a star. He hasn’t been The Man.

That changed in Tuscaloosa.

Early did make one big three-pointer early in Tuesday night’s second half. But he did his best work against Alabama in the post, using his quickness and athleticism to score over and around Tide defenders. Early is difficult to guard down low because of his footwork and instincts. It’s nice that he can be a perimeter threat, but I think his best work is done in the trenches, where his skill set is best utilized.

No one doubts Early’s skills.

Against Alabama, he mixed in a good dose of desire. When Early wanted the ball, he made sure everyone know he wanted the ball. And when he got the ball, he knew what to do with the ball.

The Shockers were 10-0 with just a so-so Early. They improved to 11-0 thanks to his best game of the season. If Early keeps this up, just how long can this unbeaten streak last?

 

Shocker Invitational (Team 1) – Who is Bill Lang?

Team 1 of the Shocker Invitational, to be played out over the next weeks and months, is led by the great Cleo Littleton.

Littleton is the leading scorer in WSU basketball history with 2,164 points. He was remarkably consistent during his four seasons, from 1951-55, averaging 18.5 points as a freshman, 18.3 as a sophomore, 18.2 as a junior and 21.2 as a senior in 1954-55.

He was the best player on the 1953-54 team that finished 27-4 and lost to Bowling Green in the first round of the NIT in New York City.

The 6-foot-3 Littleton, an East High product who has always lived in Wichita, is an all-time Shocker great.

His teammates in the Shocker Invitational include 6-10 center Sasha Radunovich, who played for Gene Smithson and Eddie Fogler in the 1980s, and the guard tandem of Dwight Praylow, another former Smithson and Fogler player who scored 983 points during his career, and current Shocker point guard Fred VanVleet, a sophomore who seems destined to carve his place in Shocker lore.

But the most interesting player on Team 1 is Bill Lang, who played on Harry Miller-coached teams from 1971-74 and was nicknamed “Wild Bill” for reasons that were obvious to those who played with him.

Lang wasn’t a big scorer – he averaged 6.4, 6.7 and 8.3 points per game during his Wichita State career. He was rarely in the Shockers’ starting lineup. But his presence was always overwhelming because he was “Wild Bill” Lang.

“One of the most hard-working, hard-nosed basketball players I’ve ever played against or with,” said former Wichita State teammate and fellow Chicagoan Art Louvar, who played two seasons with Lang at WSU.

Louvar did not know Lang when they were high schoolers in Chicago. Lang played at Gordon Tech, on the city’s north side, for Dick Versace, who would later coach at Bradley and in the NBA.

“I got to know Bill when I was a sophomore at Wichita State and he was a freshman,” Louvar said. “That was when we worked Al McGuire’s basketball camp together in Chicago. It was me, him and another Shocker, Mike James.”

Louvar remembers a pick-up game after the campers had gone to bed. Always regarded as an outstanding shooter, Louvar and Lang were on opposite teams in this one.

“I’d hit a couple of buckets and on my next shot he actually punched me in the stomach,” Louvar said. “I’d never been punched in the stomach before during a game. I’d been jabbed a few times, but he actually punched me.”

As Louvar would learn, Lang was just that kind of player.

“He had this wild blond hair that he never combed and this sharp elbows,” Louvar said of Lang, who died of cancer in 2009. “He told me one time about being shot with a BB or pellet gun during a high school game in Chicago. Nothing scared Bill, though. He was a tough-nosed competitor and he was just the same off the court. He always wore a long trench coat.”

The 6-foot-5 Lang was described in the team’s media guide as having “a fearless attitude and strong-arm tactics.” Shocker fans always reacted when Lang entered a game and some probably even covered their eyes.

“He was our enforcer,” Louvar said. “He would cheap-shot people, no doubt about it. There was nothing he wouldn’t do. He was just that way.”

But Shocker fans loved him. Lang played all out for every second he was on the floor.

“One time in our place he dove on the floor for a loose ball right in front of our radio announcer, Gus Grebe,” Louvar said. “He hit his head on the floor and cut his eye. Blood was streaming down his face and he was as proud as he could be because he was showing everybody he would do anything to get to that loose ball.”

Lang averaged 4.9, 5.7 and 4.9 rebounds in his career and was an intimidating defensive presence, even when giving away size. He was unique. I’m not sure there has ever been another Shocker player like him. And he definitely brings an edge to Team 1.

 

Lots of empty seats around the MVC

It’s too early to make a judgment about what kind of long-term partner Loyola will make for the Missouri Valley Conference, which added the Ramblers to the roster in the spring after Creighton bolted for the Big East.

But in the short term, this stinks.

LoyolaLoyola is off to a 5-5 start and the Ramblers’ average home attendance for four games is 1,683. Capacity for the Joseph J. Gentile Arena is 4,486. There were 1,103 in the stands for a Dec. 13 home game against Campbell. I know it’s Campbell, but c’mon. East High draws more.

I want Loyola to work out. I go way back with the Ramblers, to a time when they often visited Wichita to pay the Shockers during much of the 1960s and 1970s. The teams played a two-game series for several years during that span and Loyola was a de facto Valley member even then.

But Loyola is a far cry from the program that won a national championship in 1963. And it’s not evident that anyone in the great metropolis of Chicago, where Loyola is located, has any interest. I hope that changes. I hope the Valley catches on there. It would be a great thing for the conference.

Loyola isn’t the only Valley school struggling to sell tickets. Outside of Wichita State, which regularly packs the house and is coming off a Final Four, nobody is doing boffo box office.

Here are the unsightly numbers:

Bradley – 5,684 average at Carver Arena, 11,164 capacity. The Braves are 1-5 since a 4-0 start and drew only 3,750 for a Dec. 4 game against IUPIU. They have already played seven home games, though, and attendance is dwindling.

Drake – 3,337 average at the Knapp Center, 7,152 capacity. Drake plays in a nice building, the Knapp Center. But forever it’s been a better place to take naps than to watch basketball games. The Bulldogs are 6-3 but had only 3,288 in the building for a game against New Mexico State on Saturday.

Evansville – 3,839 average at the Ford Center, 11,000 capacity. The Purple Aces play in a new downtown arena and have an interesting team, with three sophomores and a couple of freshmen contributing heavily. But there’s not much interest yet in a team that is 6-5.

Illinois State – 4,978 at Redbird Arena, 10,200 capacity. The Redbirds knocked off then-No. 25 Dayton on Dec. 7 in front of 6,697 fans, but have been below 4,600 in three other home games. Illinois State’s top four scorers are junior college transfers, by the way. Not that that has anything to do with attendance.

Indiana State – 5,820 at the Hulman Center, 10,200 capacity. The Sycamores went into the season with high expectations but the home fans have rarely gotten to see the team, which has played only two home games and is off to a 7-2 start.

Missouri State – 4,442 at JQH Arena, 11,000 capacity. Bears fans obviously aren’t buying the team’s 8-1 start. Tuesday night’s game at Louisville could tell a story, but is it one the Missouri State faithful will want to hear?

Northern Iowa – 4,231 at the McLeod Center, 6,650 capacity. There were almost 6,000 for a home win over VCU on Saturday, a victory that might jump start the 5-5 Panthers.

Southern Illinois – 4,576 at SIU Arena, 8,339 capacity. It looks like more of the same in Carbondale, where SIU is 2-7 and fans are staying home in droves despite a nice remodeling of SIU Arena.