PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Blood flowed from a cut above Fred VanVleet’s right eye during Tuesday’s First Four NCAA Tournament game against Vanderbilt.
VanVleet either didn’t feel it, or didn’t care. He ran to the sideline, blood dripping, to inbound the ball before a referee stopped him.
It’s March, this is VanVleet’s time. He’s not about to miss game time over a little blood.
“Luckily, I don’t need stitches,” he said Wednesday. “Or, I opted not to get stitches. I’ll be fine.”
VanVleet is Wichita State’s determined senior leader, a winner from the moment he first stepped into the Shockers’ locker room, and a key cog in the best four-year stretch in program history.
He’s a fan favorite, a thorn in the side of opponents, and his teammates rave about what it’s like to play with a point guard like him. He averages 12 points and 5.7 assists per game, but means much, much more than that.
“Wow,” UA coach Sean Miller said. “He reminds me a lot of T.J. McConnell.”
Miller qualified the statement saying that VanVleet should take that as the “ultimate compliment.”
“Fred, I think, is the heart and soul of their team,” he said.
No qualification needed.
For the last two years, VanVleet watched from afar as McConnell scrapped his way into becoming one of the Pac-12’s best point guards, a leader and a hustler just as likely to fall on the floor diving for a loose ball when the Wildcats were up by 20 points as he was to make a clutch shot or pass when Arizona needed it most.
VanVleet has watched McConnell carve out a role in the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers, a fate nobody expected, even after his UA career.
The two met at last year’s Nike Skills Combine in New Jersey and exchanged notes.
“I professed to him my respect for his game, and it was mutual,” VanVleet said. “That started our conversation. Then seeing him and his success with the Sixers has definitely given me a lot of motivation.”
When all is said and done, VanVleet might even have a more accomplished career than McConnell, who, to be fair, spent his first two years of college at Duquesne.
VanVleet is in his fourth straight NCAA Tournament, the first one coming in 2013 when the ninth-seeded Shockers advanced to the Final Four.
The Shockers went 34-0 in the regular season during VanVleet’s sophomore year and earned a No. 1 seed in the tournament. His junior season, Wichita State won 30 games and made it to the Sweet 16.
This year was different. If anything, it was more like the 2013 run — Wichita State was sent to Dayton for play-in game between No. 11 seeds just for the right to play the No. 6 seeded Arizona Wildcats on Thursday.
“I was telling people that even though it was a play-in game, I appreciated that so much more because I felt like we had to work so much harder as seniors and guys who gotta carry the show and lead the team, make sure guys are in the right place at the right time,” VanVleet said. “So you just appreciate it more. Obviously there’s no next year for us in terms of college basketball, so that adds a different factor to the game as well.”
VanVleet came out of his freshman season with a Final Four bid, and the Shockers haven’t been back yet.
In each successive season since, VanVleet has had an offseason to try and figure out how to get back. He won’t get that this time. Now it’s win, or go home. For the last time, too.
“It’s gonna be hard to grasp that,” said Ron Baker, another Wichita senior and VanVleet’s best friend. “People understand games in the Final Four are not an easy task. We haven’t felt pressure to make it back, but obviously it’s a goal.”
That Final Four run in 2013 began in Salt Lake City with an opening-round matchup against Pittsburgh, followed by a bout with top-seeded Gonzaga. The Shockers followed that up a couple rounds later with an Elite Eight win against Ohio State.
Down the hall was Arizona, which advanced to the Sweet 16 before losing to the same Ohio State team in Los Angeles.
McConnell was in Arizona’s locker room then, a relative unknown commodity in his required redshirt season.
Now he’s a role player in the NBA, making six figures.
“There’s a lot of parallels you can draw,” VanVleet said. “It’s inspirational to see a guy like that who nobody thought was an NBA player, and he’s out there doing it, and doing pretty well.”