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?