Fred VanVleet liked to sing, which did not mean he had an aptitude for singing. The American Idol video game for PlayStation 3, then, was a problem. It required him to sing in front of everyone else in order to win, and he didn’t care for that. So when his Rockford, Ill., home was empty, VanVleet powered up the game, took hold of the microphone and started a solo act.
He memorized every syllable of every song. He examined patterns and fixed on the timing of high notes that could earn him double- and triple-scores. When anyone returned home or approached the room, VanVleet shut down the game and his vocal cords. Otherwise, he dedicated hour after hour to it, until he was certain he could outperform anyone.
“He figured it out,” said Joe Danforth, VanVleet’s stepfather. “You don’t have to sing perfect, but you have to hit the notes just right.”
It is a familiar refrain for the point guard of one of the nation’s two remaining undefeated teams, with VanVleet and Wichita State locked in another quest for perfection and harmony. Entering a perilous clash at Indiana State on Wednesday, the Shockers have followed last season’s Final Four run with a 23-0 record this season.
VanVleet’s NCAA tournament performance last spring was eye-catching – he had a double-digit scoring efforts off the bench against Gonzaga and Ohio State – but the encore demanded a more comprehensive role with the ball and the team in his hands. The result is 12.1 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting and 122 assists against just 31 turnovers, a ratio that ranks 10th in the country. The Shockers are No. 30 in adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 9 in adjusted defensive efficiency, per kenpom.com, and VanVleet has energized it all. His Win Shares total – an estimation of how many victories a player’s offensive and defensive contributions are worth – is 4.6, seventh in the country. By comparison, Creighton’s Doug McDermott has a Win Shares total of 4.5.
“The thing that I think is most impressive with Wichita State is how consistent they are in terms of their effort, how consistent they are at the defensive end of floor,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “They have a high level of commitment on every possession. That’s what has made their team so good again this year. I say that first, because Van Vleet seems to really exemplify that. When you’ve got your guy at the start of your attack at both ends of the floor doing exactly that, at a high level of effort on every single possession, that has a tremendous impact on your team. He doesn’t make mistakes.”
Part of that is his competitive streak – “Not too many people want to win more than me, and Fred VanVleet may be one of those guys,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said – but another part is being attuned to each player on the roster. Since that Final Four run, VanVleet has learned that Cleanthony Early, the team’s leading scorer, never needs a shot of energy. But when frustration sets in, Early occasionally requires a calming influence. Conversely, Van Vleet has diagnosed second-leading scorer Ron Baker to be too selfless at times, so he will nudge Baker to shoot more, telling Baker he's the best shooting guard in the country.
“It would help if you had those things as a guy coming off the bench,” VanVleet said, “but it’s not as important as when you’re a starting guy and you’ve got the majority of the minutes and you’re leading this team. You really have to know all the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet or that people may not even see watching the game. You have to learn your guys, and it helps a lot when they all respect you and love you and accept you as a leader.”
Growing up in Rockford – rated by Forbes as the nation’s third most miserable city in 2013 -- meant walking around aware of trouble and also aware of the attention heaped on players in the greater Chicago area, which was 90 minutes away. Being a 5-foot-11 guard on a little-known AAU team didn’t help. During the recruiting process, Danforth remembered coaches praising his stepson but noting that he didn't appear to be having any fun.
“And he loved playing,” Danforth said. “But he would play pissed off all the time."
He was. VanVleet recalls a rivalry with fellow Rockford native LaMark Foote that dated to third or fourth grade. If someone thought Foote was better, even then, Van Vleet set about proving that person wrong. The two eventually became AAU teammates and best friends, but not before VanVleet spent years settling scores. “I wanted to be the best, I wanted to leave a good impression on people when they walked away, saying, man, that guy really played the game hard, he plays the game the right way,” Van Vleet said.
As his high school career closed and he found a school, Wichita State, that wanted him from the start, VanVleet chose to tune out the negativity. He began to demonstrate appreciation to those who supported him, in conversations and through social media. His regular use of the hash tag #815 on his Twitter account is a nod to those in Rockford who trusted he would do this all along.
Those who didn’t still exist, but VanVleet wouldn’t really know. “I used to try to look for (negativity) as motivation and stuff like that,” he said. “But I think that gets you to a point where you’re playing the game the wrong way. You’re playing the game filled with hate. That’s not a good way to play. It’s good to be motivated and things like that. But I think you can just as easily find motivation in trying to make people proud.”
In Wichita, these people are not hard to find. They often find him first.
When VanVleet makes a trip to Wal-Mart, he prefers to wear a hat or tug a hood over his head. It hardly matters. The double-takes still track his movements and the people of Wichita still approach him for pictures or autographs The biggest adjustment of his sophomore may not be managing teammates’ psyches or discerning where they like the ball. It may be realizing that one person saying hello and thank you after a movie soon swells into dozens, and that it can take a long time to leave.
“That’s why I like to go places with Ron Baker, because they recognize him a little more,” VanVleet said. “I use him as a shield and let him get all the attention and I kind of sneak into the background.”
Those opportunities are scarce thanks to his part in Wichita State’s success. Faced with an 18-point halftime deficit at Missouri State on Jan. 11 and therefore facing an end to the unbeaten streak, VanVleet issued a plain message to his teammates: If this is going to happen, we’re not going to have any regrets. Let’s do this our way.
VanVleet scored 12 of the team’s last 13 points, including a game-tying free throw with eight seconds left in regulation, to help complete the comeback. Hiscalm in oppressive situations or late in the shot clock stuns opposing coaches; when the seconds tick down, Jacobson said, “he seems to make everything right happen.”
It has led those coaches to a consensus: Wichita State in 2013-14 may be better than the Final Four team, due to VanVleet running the show instead of his departed mentor and friend, Malcolm Armstead.
“I think he’s better than Armstead, because he can make everyone around him better,” Missouri State coach Paul Lusk said. “And he’s just tough. He’s very gritty, he’ll guard you, he’ll move his feet, he gets his nose in there for steals. He just manages everything that goes on with that team.”
Earlier this week, VanVleet checked in with his stepfather, a Rockford police officer, and a simple conversation arrived at a profound conclusion: In Wichita, VanVleet said, he could relax. He didn’t have to worry about where he went or the company he kept or trouble finding him. He could let his guard down and let everything go. His parents heard relief in his voice. VanVleet was having fun, and in total control of what came next.