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Bob Lutz: Wessel grinding away at Wichita State

  • Published Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012, at 7 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Oct. 26, 2012, at 7:50 a.m.

Evan Wessel misses playing football, no doubt. He had a chance to go to Kansas and strap on a helmet and pads, but the former Heights High two-sport All-State standout chose Wichita State and basketball, instead.

Still, he’s the closest thing to a football player on the WSU campus.

Rugged, tireless, aggressive and just a tad mean, Wessel brings a football mentality to the basketball floor. He does the dirty work that coaches appreciate and that’s why the 6-foot-5 Wessel is pushing and shoving — literally, almost — his way into a potential starting spot for the Shockers, who don’t open the regular season for a couple of weeks but have an exhibition game against Pittsburg State on Nov. 5.

This is the same Wessel — in name, at least — who got into only 13 games as a freshman last season. So he spent the spring and summer bulking up, refining his skills and promising himself he wasn’t going to let up for even a second in his quest to be a difference-maker for the Shockers.

“He really plays hard, he’s very coachable and very smart,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “He’s very similar to (former Shocker) Graham Hatch in his physicality, determination, strength and how hard he plays.”

Players like Hatch and Wessel take time to grow on a coach. Neither oozes basketball skills, necessarily, but they make up for what they lack in talent with an insatiable desire to fill in the blanks.

Wessel, for instance, loves to chase offensive rebounds from the perimeter. Can you imagine? He relishes contact with bigger and taller frontcourt players and takes pride in out-foxing them for a rebound.

And if there’s one thing he loves more than rebounding, it’s laying out on the floor for a loose ball. He talks about things like extra possessions for his team, words that make Marshall smile from one ear to the other.

“Every possession you get, they’re key,” Wessel said.

He won’t be happy until he’s an outstanding defensive player. He’s already really good, but unsatisfied.

Yes, that’s Marshall smiling again.

“Evan’s a really scrappy player,” Wichita State senior guard Demetric Williams said. “When you’re going against him, he’s going to be right there on your hip, no matter what.”

So what if Wessel doesn’t shoot it like Joe Ragland. Few do. And Wessel will surprise you with his offense.

“He’ll jump up and knock it down,” Marshall said. “He’ll also miss one badly from time to time, but then he’ll come back down and make the next two. I really haven’t figured that out yet.”

It’s focus and determination and Wessel has an abundance of both.

He has that mop top of curly hair and what looks like a gangly body until you get up close, so the tendency is to underestimate Wessel’s athleticism. Big mistake. He could probably be in a Big 12 defensive backfield if he had so chosen and won’t embarrass himself anywhere on a basketball floor, from point guard to center.

For the Shockers, he’s settled in at the small forward spot. And it’s OK to start finding pity for the other small forwards in the Missouri Valley Conference who will soon feel the wrath of Wessel’s all-out style of play.

“We’re usually on the same team when we practice and that’s good,” WSU red-shirt freshman Ron Baker said. “You know Evan’s going to the glass every time on offense and he’s a really tough check-out when he’s on the other team. He’s going full force on every possession, every play.”

Wessel was a key part of three state championship basketball teams at Heights, and one that won a football title. He has an innate ability to know just how much to contribute and just when to make those contributions. He never tries to be more than he is, except for that occasional shot that clanks against the rim or the backboard and makes you wonder what he was thinking.

But, like Marshall said, Wessel will come back down the floor and make the next one.

“You’ve got to forget about the bad stuff and focus on the positives,” Wessel said. “I’ve been working on my jump shot a lot this summer, especially three-pointers. I think I’ve gotten a lot better.”

If Wessel adds “knock-down three-point shooter” to his resume, watch out.

There were times last season, Wessel admits, that doubt crept in. That’ll happen as you sit on the bench while accumulating only 99 minutes — the equivalent of 2 ½ games — of playing time.

Had he made the right choice, picking basketball over football? Was he good enough to play at the Division I level? Could he hold his own?

“I think everyone probably has those doubts from time to time,” Wessel said. “But you’ve got to stay through that stuff and you’ve got to grind. The season is a grind and you have to stay mentally tough.”

“Grind” is a perfect word for a player like Wessel. He grinds, all right. And if you’re up against Wessel, be careful. Because he’ll grind you up.

Read Bob Lutz’s blog at blogs.kansas.com/lutz. Reach him at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com.

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