Garrett Stutz and Ben Smith started their contest during Wichita State’s basketball trip to Brazil last summer. They’re basketball players, so you might think shooting contest, or dunking contest.
They’re college students, so you might think eating contest. Or napping contest.
Stutz and Smith squared off to see who could be the best teammate. If Smith saw Stutz encouraging a guy who missed a few shots, Smith tried to top it. If Stutz observed Smith working hard during a tough day in the weight room, he tried to set an even better example.
They kept track of the standings informally. On Sunday, Smith smiled and declared the winner.
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“He is,” Smith said. “He’s the winner. He does things so many players don’t do.”
Stutz, a senior center from Kansas City, Mo., values service over self, as WSU athletic director Eric Sexton describes his behavior. Stutz makes helping others part of his routine for the simple reason it makes him feel good. That is why Shocker coach Gregg Marshall describes him as the best teammate.
“Jesus came to serve,” Stutz said. “I’m a man of faith.”
Wichita State had just clinched the Missouri Valley Conference title at Illinois State, and manager Ryan Hillard was leaving the locker room, overloaded with two bulky equipment bags. Stutz offered to help, something Hillard confirms he does regularly.
On trips, Stutz serves sandwiches on the team bus, a job he said he took over after a bad loss when everybody else moped. Now, coaches, teammates, administrators and fans who travel with the Shockers receive their post-game meal from a 7-footer who might play in the NBA.
Last week, 30 cases of nutritional shakes arrived, so it was Stutz who sat in a chair and filled the weight-room refrigerator.
“He doesn’t come off like a senior,” Sexton said. “He has great senior leadership, but he is willing to roll up his sleeves and do what underclassmen ought to do, or underclassmen do in other programs, like unload the planes and hand out sandwiches. He is always giving of himself.”
Strength and conditioning coordinator Kerry Rosenboom doesn’t travel with the Shockers by choice, although that doesn’t diminish his importance to the team. When WSU won the NIT last season, Stutz brought him a piece of the net cut down in Madison Square Garden. When the Shockers cut down the nets in Koch Arena to celebrate their MVC title this season, Stutz pulled Rosenboom out of the crowd and insisted he climb the ladder and take part.
“There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for you,” Rosenboom said.
Stutz doesn’t think he is doing anything extraordinary.
“If I can help somebody, I’m going to do it,” he said.
Stutz also leads in more traditional ways. He is the player who makes sure teammates get to breakfast on time. He is the voice in practice who knows what coaches want. He is the voice in the locker room who can help a slumping teammate get through a tough stretch.
“He sincerely cares about his teammates, not just as players, but as people,” Marshall said. “The quality of person he is transcends into the kind of teammate he is. He’s got a big heart.”
Even the Shocker newcomers fall under Stutz’s protective wingspan.
“I’ve never seen Garrett angry at anybody,” said Joe Mitchell, a junior transfer who is redshirting this season. “He is always encouraging me to get better, go hard, don’t quit, fight through adversity when coaches are yelling at us. It’s very important to know that you’re not alone. Sometimes it seems like you’re the only one getting yelled at. That’s not really the case, and he’s got your back.”
That role of tackling dummy for coaches to bang on verbally is one Stutz embraces. He endured four seasons of practices and film sessions and heard every manner of insult, tease and test from Marshall. He learned to focus on the message, not how the message is delivered. When he describes leading by example, that job is first on his mind.
“Take the brunt of the blow from the coaches,” he said. “I’d rather have them come at me than come at a teammate. When they’re mad and they’re upset, they come at me and I’m fine with that.”
Stutz doesn’t need to say a word to set a good example. He earned All-District VI honors from the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and All-Missouri Valley Conference honors after averaging 13.5 points and 8.0 rebounds. He was also named to the MVC’s Most-Improved Team for a second time, an indication of where he came from earlier in his career. This season, playing more minutes, he turned into the centerpiece of WSU’s offense and a key reason observers will move the Shockers along in their brackets this week. Stutz progressed by putting in the hours on the court, in the weight room and in class for four years. Marshall has maintained for four years that Stutz possessed NBA talent, and opposing coaches joined that chorus this season.
He is soft-spoken, but his voices carries on the practice floor and in the locker room. When he speaks, teammates know his words matter because of what he invests in the team.
“He shows how things should be done,” freshman Evan Wessel said. “I’m looking at a senior who does all the right stuff, not just basketball. Taking care of grades. Being a good person.”
That part of Stutz’s legacy is secure. He added to it by helping WSU win the MVC and return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006. Thursday’s game against Virginia Commonwealth is his next opportunity.
Shockers 18th, 19th — Wichita State is No. 18 in the Associated Press poll, its first spot in the final ranking of the season since 1983.
The Shockers (27-5) dropped two spots in the poll despite not playing last week. They dropped three spots in the USA Today/ESPN poll voted on by coaches, falling to No. 19.
WSU opens play in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday against VCU (28-6) in Portland, Ore. Rams coach Shaka Smart voted WSU No. 14 his poll. Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson voted WSU No. 10.