The question of whether Wichita State is having the most successful run ever by a mid-major program is debatable. But there is no argument over who has been at the center of the Shockers' success: a point guard who made it out of a rough environment, made everyone around him better, and grew into one of the best leaders in college basketball.
After being ignored by schools from college basketball's power conferences, Fred VanVleet committed to Wichita State in July 2011. Ever since, he's done nothing but win. The Shockers are 95-15 in his three seasons. And last spring both he and fellow senior guard Ron Baker passed on the NBA draft in order to make a fourth pursuit of a national title.
In Wichita, VanVleet is the face of winning. His fiercely competitive coach, Gregg Marshall, admits that VanVleet "is one of those rare guys who wants to win even more than I do."
VanVleet was sitting in a back-corner booth of a deli in Wichita during lunch hour in October. He was talking to a reporter about his childhood when he was interrupted by a woman carrying a smartphone. The teenage members of the girls' tennis team from nearby Andover High were standing timidly behind her.
"I'm so sorry," the woman said. "It's just that, tomorrow we have states, and we've won back-to-back titles, and we're going for a third. So I thought, Who better to take a picture with than you for inspiration?"
VanVleet was happy to oblige. Everyone smiled.
"Any tips for the girls?" the woman asked. VanVleet paused, and then sheepishly said, "Just play hard — and have fun."
It is not that VanVleet didn't have a better answer on what drives him to win. He had explained it a few minutes earlier. It was just that a group of suburban high school girls from central Kansas were probably not going to relate to his experiences.
VanVleet grew up in Rockford, Illinois, in a very tough area. He constantly heard stories about players who could have been great but couldn't stay out of trouble.
"My whole mind-set growing up," VanVleet says, "was that I was not going to let myself be one of those Rockford people who didn't pan out. And I carried that chip with me to college — that I need to be that one who actually breaks the stigma. Their failure is in the back of my head. That is what I'm running from."
VanVleet's stepfather, Joe Danforth — a police detective in Rockford — was very strict and made Fred and his brother, Darnell, get up at 5:45 a.m. for intense workouts doing things like scrimmaging fullcourt in a weighted vest. VanVleet hated the extreme discipline and early workouts, but a funny thing happened: He started to acquire Danforth's mannerisms, obsession with detail, and militant mentality.
Arriving with a militant mind was a key to thriving at Wichita State, where Marshall, an intense and exacting coach, would instill the motto Play angry. VanVleet began his true-freshman season, 2012-13, buried at the back end of the rotation, gradually earned more minutes during conference play, and then had his career kick-started just before the NCAA tournament.
After a loss to Creighton, Malcolm Armstead, the team's senior starting point guard, approached Marshall's wife, Lynn, son, Kellen, and daughter, Maggie, with a request. "Tell coach that Fred's gotta play," Kellen recalls Armstead saying, while expressing a desire to play alongside VanVleet. "It's my senior year, and I'm trying to go to the Final Four."
The message was delivered, and Marshall put VanVleet on the floor for 20 minutes in the ninth-seeded Shockers' second-round meeting with Gonzaga, the No. 1 seed. With 1:24 left in the game and the shot clock running down, VanVleet rewarded his coach by hitting the dagger three that put Wichita up five and out of the Zags' reach. The Shockers advanced all the way to the Final Four.
VanVleet returned to Wichita State that next fall and became its starting point guard and clear-cut leader.
It was not a coincidence that the Shockers broke 1990-91 UNLV's record for most consecutive wins to start a season, and they entered the 2014 NCAA tournament 34-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation. VanVleet was a 19-year-old sophomore in a rotation that included four seniors, but everyone considered him the leader. He ran the offense with ruthless efficiency (in one four-game stretch in December and January, he had 23 assists and no turnovers), was often the first man on the bus on the road, sat front row center during film scouting sessions, and was the team's most trusted voice in huddles and in the locker room.
"Fred always has the right thing to say at the right time," Baker says. "I don't know where he gets it from, but it's like music to your ears. It's always nice to hear his voice when we win — and when we lose."
After the most devastating loss of their careers — their epic battle with Kentucky in the NCAA tournament's Round of 32, heads turned to VanVleet for wisdom. First he helped coax an inconsolable senior, Chadrack Lufile, out of their locker-room bathroom at St. Louis' Scottrade Center, so that they could face the loss as a group. Then VanVleet reminded his teammates of their legacy and that they would all keep playing, somewhere.
"Everybody's got futures in this," VanVleet told them "This is not ending." When Baker was moping on the bus outside the arena, VanVleet heaped positives on him: Neither of them had arrived at Wichita State as NBA prospects, and they had just gone toe-to-toe with a team that had five future draftees. VanVleet knew that he and Baker would be together in more NCAA tournaments, and he wanted to build his teammate back up.
Last season, VanVleet helped the Shockers win 30 more games and beat Kansas to go to the Sweet 16. This year they have the most seasoned lineup of any elite team, and they believe they can go even further on the court.
And VanVleet is thinking about making a difference off the court as well.
VanVleet, a sociology major, recently tweeted a link to a study that called Rockford the second-worst city for African-Americans. It highlighted Rockford's alarming black unemployment rate and the huge gap between the income of whites and blacks in the metro area.
VanVleet grew up in a bi-racial family and identifies himself as African-American. The study was a reminder to him that his city has a long way to go in addressing racial inequality. VanVleet's hope is that when he's made enough money playing basketball, he can help fix the school system in the part of town where he grew up. He wants to see more classes that offer job and life skills. He wants to see more black history taught. And he feels that troubled students are simply promoted along until they are old enough to drop out instead of getting the attention they need.
In the meantime, VanVleet has appeared as a 2014 graduation speaker for his alma mater, Auburn High, to try to offer some inspiration. "They're always telling us, 'Rockford is a miserable place to live,'" he said to the graduates. "'There's not a lot of talent coming out of Rockford.' Blah, blah, blah. You know the rest of the story. I look at it like there's only two things you can do about it. You can live up to it and make it worse or you can change it and make it better."
Photos: Greg Nelson for Sports Illustrated (profile, action), David E. Klutho for Sports Illustrated (defending)