KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It sure was easier when Doug McDermott was around.
For the last two years, when it came to declaring the best single player in the Missouri Valley Conference, there was Dougie Fresh … then everybody else.
But in 2014, McDermott is the King of the Big East. And No. 2 Wichita State, the best team in the Missouri Valley Conference — maybe the best team in the country — is without one singular STAR, all caps. In fact, it’s part of the Shockers’ charm.
Cleanthony Early? The leading points man, the inside-out threat who can score from anywhere on the floor?
Ron Baker? The blonde bomber, ace off-guard by day and backup point guard by night?
Fred VanVleet? The director, the man who puts all the chess pieces in motion?
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Not a wrong answer in the bunch. But which one is the right one?
"I think (coach) Gregg (Marshall) should hand that award out," Bradley coach Geno Ford told reporters last week.
"My vote," Indiana State coach Greg Lansing added, "would be the team."
Yep. It sure was easier when Doug McDermott was around.
THE THREE FRONT-RUNNERS FOR LARRY BIRD MVC PLAYER OF THE YEAR
:03 … RON BAKER, WICHITA STATE (13.1 points per game, 3.7 rebounds per game, 3.3 assists per game)
Years as a starter: Two. Total losses: Two.
Forget the hand — you can count the setbacks on two fingers. At Tennessee in 2012, and in the NCAA tourney semifinal to eventual national champion Louisville in 2013. That’s it.
A 6-foot-3, 213-pound combo guard, Baker is to hoops what a five-tool player is to The Show, a cat who can do it all. Shooting. Passing. Rebounding. Vision. Defense. Hustle. Toughness. The native of little Scott City, Kan., heads into Arch Madness leading the Shox in 3-point makes (57) and second in points, assists and steals. Need a big trey? Baker. Need somebody to run the point and give VanVleet a rest? Baker. Need a big stop? Baker.
It’s a fun debate as to which Sunflower State guard you’d rather have as your starting ‘2’: Kansas’ Wayne Selden, K-State’s Marcus Foster or Wichita’s Baker? There isn’t a bad choice in the bunch, but …
If Baker is the Shockers’ soul, then Early is their rock, Mr. Consistent. Since the fall of 2012, the 6-8 New York native has reached double digits in scoring in all but six regular-season contests.
Like Baker, Early fits where you need him to fit on the floor. Last winter, when the Shockers featured big Carl Hall in the paint, Early could roam the wing and spot up. This year, with Wichita often featuring a smaller, less physically imposing lineup, Big Cle has served as an effective ‘4,’ when asked, scoring on the blocks and getting to the charity stripe. His free-throw percentage of .848 ranks second in the league and his ‘true’ shooting percentage of .611 is fifth.
Also, there’s this: When Marshall challenged Early to pick up his defense, he responded. On a squad that features Cotton, Baker and VanVleet, all of whom will get after you, according to Sports-Reference.com, the best defender on the Shox (and in the MVC) is, in fact, Early, with a defensive rating of 91.6 (or 91.6 points per 100 possessions by the opponent).
:01 … FRED VANVLEET, G, WICHITA STATE (11.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 5.3 apg)
And this is where it gets really, really hard. In fact, it’s all pretty much a dead heat until you ask one very pivotal question of these three Wichita stars:
What would the Shockers look like if he wasn’t there?
Baker might be one of the 15 best off-guards in the country, and he’s only getting better. But when he was hobbled during the Tennessee game Dec. 14 with a bad ankle, Marshall exhorted underrated wing man Tekele Cotton to pick up more of the scoring slack. The Georgia native then went out and dropped 19 on the Vols.
But take away VanVleet, and … well, you’re left with Baker. And because of D.J. Bowles’ heart ailment, that’s about it, at least as Marshall’s preferred options at the point. Baker could run the team, and capably, but he’s stronger as an offensive threat you can move around the floor.
The metrics dig Freddie V, too: The Rockford, Ill., native is the only MVC player to rank among the top 20 nationally, according to Sports-Reference.com, in offensive rating (No. 2, 136.1 points per 100 possessions), offensive win shares (No. 17, 3.6), defensive win shares (No. 14, 2.4) and overall win shares (No. 4, 6.3). And in that last category, here’s another interesting tidbit: VanVleet sits just a shade ahead of an old, familiar name — McDermott, who was credited with 6.1 win shares as of early Monday.
Good company. The best, now that you mention it.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.