There was a message delivered, a long time ago, that Wichita State sophomore guard Evan Wessel never forgot.
“My dad and my grandpa, from the time I was a little kid, instilled in me that just because one part of your game isn’t working, you can still play defense and you can still hustle,” Wessel said. “You can always still find a way to help your team.”
The one part of his game that hasn’t been working this season for Wessel, a 6-foot-5 Heights product, has been his offense. He’s averaging 1.4 points and 1.8 rebounds and is shooting 35 percent (14 of 40) from the field.
Qualifying Wessel on those statistics alone, however, tells little of the story of his season. There’s a reason he’s stayed in the rotation all year for No. 2 WSU (29-0, 16-0 MVC), which plays at Bradley (12-17, 7-9) on Tuesday night, and it’s not been putting the ball in the basket.
“He knows why he plays. He’s a glue guy, he’s a tough guy, he’s a loose-ball guy, he’s a rebound guy, a defensive guy,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “And he’s just a winner. He’s won in everything his whole life.”
That he is. Wessel won three Class 6A basketball titles and one 6A football title at Heights. He was a bench player on the Shockers’ MVC title team in 2012 and started the first eight games for WSU last season before a broken pinkie finger sidelined him for the season and resulted in a medical redshirt. He was also helping cut down the nets at Koch Arena to celebrate WSU’s Missouri Valley Conference championship after an 83-54 win over Drake on Saturday night.
“Winning doesn’t get old,” Wessel said. “Cutting down nets never gets old.”
He’s averaging 12.3 minutes and played 16 against Drake, staying on the court for a crucial stretch in the first half when leading scorers Ron Baker and Cleanthony Early were in foul trouble.
“I feel like I’m playing pretty good defensively right now, but I wasn’t great (against Drake),” Wessel said. “I let a couple of slips to the basket and they got some easy ones. I’ve still got a lot to improve on.”
Something else has happened for Wessel in the last two games, too. After starting the season 0 for 20 shooting three-pointers, he connected on his first three of the season in an 88-74 win at Loyola last Wednesday. Then he went 2 for 2 shooting three-pointers — his only points — against Drake.
“We know he’s a good shooter, we see it every day in practice,” WSU point guard Fred VanVleet said. “It was great to see him get on a roll (against Drake). We have a lot of confidence in him and everyone admires how hard he works. That’s not up for dispute.”
The reaction from the crowd and from his teammates was visceral.
“Evan is tough-hearted, he likes to play hard, he likes grinding,” Baker said. “He’s been struggling with his offensive game a little bit but we’ve been there for him. We want him to shoot if he’s open, get his confidence up. It was great to see a couple fall for him tonight.”
A hard-nosed approach with its roots in some keen advice from a couple of former Shockers — grandfather Ev played basketball for WSU in the 1950s and his father, Todd, played football there in the 1980s.
“He’s a great teammate, these guys see that and that’s what they respect,” Marshall said. “They have each other’s backs ... like a band of brothers. You saw that with how they got behind Evan when he hit those shots.”