Van Vleet steps up on national stage

By Matt Nestor
Prep Sports Reporter

Former Rockford Auburn High School star Fred Van Vleet has had a solid, but unspectacular, year for the most part in his freshman year at Wichita State University.

He’s had his good moments, rarely any bad. But with veteran players in front of him, Van Vleet had limited minutes each game to make a significant impact.

Van Vleet certainly wasn’t hurting for attention in his hometown, where Rockford residents have watched his every move. But he had not made the sort of impact as a freshman as you see in other programs.

That is not really the Wichita State way, either. They are a program-builder, not a one-and-done factory like Kentucky. The plan for Van Vleet was for him to make big plays in big games as a junior and senior after watching teammates step up as a freshman and sophomore.

If it’s all the same to Van Vleet, he has decided to bypass that plan. And his clutch play has garnered him national attention after he sealed a big victory in the NCAA tournament.

As he and his Wichita State Shockers teammates stared down the No. 1 seed Gonzaga Bulldogs in the West Regional of the NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball tournament, Van Vleet had several big plays along the way.

He made a steal, he hit a 3, and he converted a fast break while being fouled and hit the free-throw. But while those were important plays, none was as important as what he did at the end of the game.

With his team trying to cling to a late lead against the top team in the AP poll in the waning minutes, and the shot clock nearing expiration, Van Vleet didn’t have a lot of options. He nearly lost his dribble before nailing a dagger 3 as the clock expired.

Van Vleet then proceeded to knock down four straight free-throws (5-5 on the game) on his way to 13 points and the clinching plays as the No. 9 seed Shockers busted their way into the Sweet 16.

The moment gave flashbacks to his high school career, where these moments seemed commonplace. Specifically, it reminded me of the Super Sectional game where his team trailed in the third quarter before he took over down the stretch to lead his team down state.

It has been some time since someone from Rockford has performed this well in basketball on this kind of stage. Others have played in college and played in the NCAA tournament, but none in recent memory has won a game for his team.

Afterward, it was exciting for the city to see their native son get praise. The Twitter and Facebook world of Rockford was overflowed with mentions of Van Vleet and his performance. Charles Barkley even got excited on TNT to find out he was from Auburn, until someone told him it wasn’t the one in Alabama.

For Rockford basketball fans, it was a great moment in time, one not soon to be forgotten. More memories could be added this season as well if the Shockers can make the Final Four in a busted West bracket.

For Shockers fans, it is a glimpse into what I’m sure they hope is three more years of greatness. And with Van Vleet’s work ethic, it is unlikely to be the last March memory he provides us with.

From the March 27-April 2, 2013, issue

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