Ron Baker, Evan Wessel and Fred VanVleet are starting their final seasons with the Wichita State basketball team. Baker and Wessel arrived in 2011 and roomed together in Fairmount Towers. Baker, from Scott City, redshirted while Wessel, from Wichita, played in 13 games as a freshman
Baker hosted VanVleet during his recruiting visit and he joined the Shockers in 2012, coming from Rockford, Ill.
You know the rest.
Wichita State continued on an upward trajectory with Baker and VanVleet playing crucial roles as freshmen in a trip to the Final Four. Wessel did, as well, starting the first eight games of 2012-13 before a broken finger ended his season. As sophomores, Baker and VanVleet started and Wessel came off the bench for a team that finished 35-1.
Last season, Wessel joined the starting lineup and helped the Shockers to the Sweet 16.
Baker and VanVleet are All-Americans and national player of the year candidates. Wessel is a role player who earned tremendous respect from his coaches and teammates. Together, they helped WSU to some of its greatest basketball moments.
Earlier this fall, Bob Lutz, Paul Suellentrop and Tony Adame of The Wichita Eagle sat down with the senior trio to talk about their careers, on and off the court, and their hopes to end this season with a trip to Houston.
What do you remember about meeting each other?
Baker: The first time I met Evan was at the dorms, Fairmount. I don’t even know if they still use those or not, but they’re over there. I remember moving in together, our parents meeting each other. We just kind of hit it off.
Wessel: We’ve been roommates ever since then.
Baker: First time I met Fred was on his visit. I was his host, so people can thank me for getting him here. He was a straight-up, honest kid. I could tell he meant business.
VanVleet: I was, a lot. It was so big of a transition. Growing up in a city and never really leaving, at all. Coming out here 10 hours away, I was excited to start school, but I was missing my family and friends. It was hard at first, but you stay busy enough to keep it away.
Baker: I had younger siblings as well, so it was a tough transition to be away from them and be away from your family so long. It was tough.
How did playing other sports in high school shape your athletic career?
VanVleet: I played football until ninth grade. I wanted to focus on basketball more and spend more time training on it. Our team was so bad, I knew I probably had better future in basketball. I liked football more, but I knew I could get to college playing basketball. I’m obviously not the most athletic guy, so I wasn’t putting my money on that for football.
Baker: We’re a big football-backing community in Scott City. To leave home and play basketball at college was kind of tough. I think the transition at Scott City is kind of going to basketball, with all the state championships they’ve piled up. Baseball, my dad was my coach so I miss that a lot, too. I’ve been to a couple Royals games with him and to sit down and watch the game with your high school coach, your dad, is fun. It’s definitely something I’d recommend to kids in Kansas.
Wessel: I definitely miss football.
Fred, did Ron say any magic words on your visit that got you to Wichita State?
VanVleet: I think I kind of knew I wanted to come before I came (on the visit). These two guys were big selling points, from both of the coaches. They were selling me on the future, the class they had coming in and the guys they already had coming in with Evan, Ron and Tekele (Cotton). Me and Cle (Early) communicated around that same time period. It was kind of already a done deal. I just wanted to get here and see it first. I wasn’t going to commit without knowing where I was going.
When there’s not egos involved, it makes everything a lot easier. It’s about more than the basketball. Obviously, if the basketball fit is perfect, you’d be stupid to ignore that. But you spend a lot more time off the court than you do on the court. It makes it easier to come in every day if you like the people around you.
What impressed you most about Wichita State?
VanVleet: The fans. Coach (Gregg Marshall), he had won at Winthrop, but he was just getting it rolling here with the NIT (in 2011) and the year I committed they were a No. 5 seed. I knew that was coming and I knew I could be a part of that. The second part was the fan support. Not having football and for most people, the main attraction is coming to Shockers games.
Wessel: My family was always here. My grandfather (basketball) and my dad (football) both played here. Knowing that you’re going to play in front of all these fans and they’re going to love you. That was the biggest selling point.
Baker: I’m a big family guy. Both my parents came on my visit. During that visit I remember my dad and Coach (Chris) Jans, who recruited me, and Coach Marshall – those two and my dad got along really well. The way they treated my family was probably the biggest selling point to me.
What impression did Marshall make when you met him?
Baker: He was really outgoing. He was selling his pitch very well – this place sells out, we don’t have football, the community loves basketball. He was like a car salesman out there, really outgoing, into the situation.
Wessel: Outgoing. He wanted to know your whole family. He knew my brother played football. I knew he was serious about getting to know you and you as a person.
VanVleet: He was really confident. I got that from the jump. The things he sold me on, looking back now, they all came true. It could have been BS at the time, who knows? He gave me the blueprint and we followed it and look at what’s happened.
You three have won around 90 percent of your games. It hasn’t all been a luxury cruise. What’s the toughest thing to deal with during your time at Wichita State?
Baker: For me, it’s staying healthy. I battled a pretty severe injury my freshman year. To see my teammates out there, playing without me, knowing I can’t help them, besides vocally, that was tough.
Wessel: Coming back from my (finger) injury (in 2012-13). It was tough coming back. I didn’t shoot it very well. But my redshirt junior year, I came back stronger and was able to shoot it better.
VanVleet: I had a couple games, just games, my freshman year I played terrible, absolutely horrible. I remember them like yesterday. I wouldn’t consider it a low, but missing that shot against Kentucky sticks with me. I wanted to build my career going in an upward transition. I wanted to make that shot so bad, I wanted to beat them so bad, I wanted to advance so bad. In that moment, I just felt like I let everybody down. It was another motivation for me, kept me working, moving forward. I thought I got a clean look. The more I look at the film and the pictures, it looks like it was pretty well guarded by a 7-footer with his hands up. I thought it was going. I take them to make them.
Evan, how hard was it not playing during the Final Four run in 2013?
Wessel: You helped them get there. You were a part of that. You’re not thinking any negative thoughts. It was a great experience.
What was the turning point of the Final Four season?
VanVleet: We knew we had a good team. The Cancun thing, we played well, beat Iowa pretty easily. Beat Creighton early on at home. The chemistry and the way our season was going, it was up and down, back and forth. Injuries, different things. We lost three in a row. I think most people were counting us out, for even the tournament. Once we beat Pittsburgh. I didn’t even play a lot, but I just remember the feel of the team. Everybody expected us to lose that game against Pittsburgh. That was a pretty easy game, in terms of the pressure they put on us. Nobody was making shots, but we controlled it from the tip. Then we saw Gonzaga play Southern and they almost lost to Southern and that gave us more confidence.
How much did the 2013-14 winning streak (which reached 35) weigh on players?
Baker: Since you’re living in the moment, it’s not that big of a deal, especially as players. Deep, deep in our mind we knew what we were doing and obviously it was something very special. Later on, 30, 40 years and we come back here and life’s a little slower and we kind of settle down with each other and sit down at a table like this and talk about it, I think it will mean a lot more to us then. Our coaches, tip your hat to them, they were getting us prepared for those games, keeping us humble. Practices were pretty much the same if you were 20-0 or 0-20.
VanVleet: We didn’t even really pay attention to it until maybe 17, 16. At Missouri State, we were down, and the first time Coach (Marshall) ever even mentioned was just when he mentioned how everybody was watching and talking about us going down. As we kept winning it kind turned into extreme confidence, almost too much confidence. It turned into a good chemistry and extreme confidence and an invincible-type attitude.
You can’t describe the feeling of being counted out. You just know everybody’s at home cursing at you, talking crazy about you. You just know they’re at home watching ESPN, “Upset Alert” coming on, and you come back and win anyway. There’s really no better feeling.
Kentucky followed up and did it right again, so it kind of sucked to watch them do it. You’ve got to respect the preparation every day.
Evan, what did the Kansas game mean to you?
Wessel: On the biggest stage, it was probably my biggest game. I thought building up to that, through the last month and a half, my game progressed, as far as shooting, and confidence there. The KU game might have been just capping it off.
Honestly, I haven’t watched it. We can relive those when I’m done playing.
Fred, how do you describe your play against Indiana in the NCAA Tournament?
VanVleet: I didn’t start getting aggressive until like nine minutes left in the first half. I kind of felt guilty from the year before and I remember saying, “We’re not going home, we’re not going out in the first round. We’ve got this nice seed.” They got out to a hot start and a switch just flipped in my head. I started getting crazy aggressive and things started going my way.
Fred, you didn’t make the Pan Am Games team last summer. Will you use that as motivation?
VanVleet: I’ll use anything as motivation. I’m on Twitter and I’ll find things. I keep everything so personal and caged in because I don’t want it to be a distraction to anybody else and I don’t really like attention. Being embarrassed like that on a national stage, it kind of put another battery in my bag going forward.
You viewed that as an embarrassment?
VanVleet: I feel like I’m one of the best players in the country and definitely the best point guard. I felt like I gave that team the best chance to win, not only to be on the team, I feel like I should have been starting. People have different opinions. I respect their opinion. But it’s OK for me to disagree with it.
Ron, what was your experience at the Pan Am Games like without Fred?
Baker: It was tough. I was fortunate enough to play well while I was in Toronto, so the trip was good for me. But not having your teammate, your wing man, with you on that team was tough. With a 24-second clock, the point guard’s got the ball in his hands, pretty much, until about six seconds, or 15 if he takes an early shot, which a lot of people saw.
The team chemistry, of that team in Toronto, didn’t start kicking in until about game 4 or game 5. If Fred was there, I think things might have been a little different. Obviously, I might be biased. He’s my point guard, so I have a right to say that.
That trip was good for me. It was another thing to put in the back of my head and have some confidence with this year.
Do you have a favorite class or favorite professor?
Wessel (who, as a fifth-year senior, graduated with a business management degree and is adding a marketing major this year): My favorite professor would have to be Brian Rawson, of the (Barton School of Business Department of Management). I’ve had three or four of his classes. He brings in real-world cases and studies. He applies his class to actually doing business in the real world. Through his experiences, he really makes it like real-life situations. Where other classes might go right out of the book, he hardly uses the book. It makes you think a lot, a lot of class discussion. I’ve had a lot of fun in his classes and I’ll definitely remember that through my years here.
Baker (who, as a fifth-year senior, graduated with a finance degree): My favorite professor is Peggy Ward, she’s in the finance department of the Barton School. I enjoy her classes; she taught a lot of introductory finance courses and she related to the students pretty well and (I was able) to learn finance a lot easier. I got along with her. Right now, I’m taking communications as a dual major. So far, so good. I think I’ll do pretty good with that, just be creative.
VanVleet: Probably Jodie Simon, she’s in the sociology department, and I’ve taken four or five of her classes. I really connect to the way she lectures and brings about the information to you. It was really easy for me to learn from her. The teachers that just don’t stick to the textbook and they give you real-world applications, it helps a lot to be able to stay focused in class. Our schedule is pretty tough already, so going to class to read a textbook is kind of hard to keep up with. Teachers that can communicate world and bring in interesting information in the right way, it definitely helps and she’s definitely, probably, the best one that I’ve had.
What are your expectations for 2015-16?
VanVleet: I want to be No. 1. I’m tired of being No. 2, I think we got to No. 2, right, when we were undefeated. I want to get to No. 1. Obviously, want to win the conference. Got to win St. Louis again. Then, get back to the Final Four. That’s my expectation. Personal expectation, I’ll keep that to myself. You’re going to have to wait and see. I’m excited to get started.
Wessel: The ceiling is real high. We want to get back to the Final Four. I want that ranking to be the highest at the end of the season that we’ve had. I want to get to that No. 1 spot at the end of the season. The Valley, it’s going to be tough, and hopefully we can win that again, both regular season and the conference tournament in St. Louis. We haven’t done that a lot. Make a run in the tournament and get back to the Final Four and have a shot to win.
Baker: I think it would be exciting for us to get the No. 1 (ranking) during the regular season. It would be a good time to look on ESPN and you’re the last team to come up with your score. Obviously, we’ve got a lot of veterans on this team and we’ve got a lot of really, really skilled new guys.
Our job as vets is to get those new guys in here and mesh as quick as possible. We had so many young guys last year you didn’t know which one was going to produce which game. At one point during the beginning of the year, Coach Marshall was saying ‘Yea, we probably need to redshirt Zach Brown.’ Well, as the season progressed you get those one or two freshmen that kind of step up a little bit. Zach Brown ended up playing 15 or 20 minutes a game for us at the end of the year and was huge for us.
Our biggest job this year is to get those young guys to mesh with the system and mesh with each other and us. If we’re a deep team, we’ll be very successful.
If you were commissioner of college basketball, what would you change to help athletes?
VanVleet: I think the benefits could be more. I’m not saying put us on salary or anything. That’s probably pretty hard to do with Title IX and everything. I think the stipend could be a little more.
I think the school should be able to fly parents to at least the (NCAA) tournament games, if not regular-season games sometimes.
Wessel: For the tournament games, paying for so many family members to go. The NCAA makes so much money – you can get four family members to go, or even two. That way it’s not coming out of your parents’ pocket. That would help a lot. We’re all happy now with being on scholarship and getting our school paid for and being able to live. You look and see what everyone makes, and all that stuff, off of you guys playing and you kind of want a little bit more. At the same time, I’m glad to be where I’m at.
Baker: The most important thing is just the little things. I’m here all the time. I feel like I should be able to go eat on campus three times a day. And if I don’t, then I’d have some money, maybe, more to my stipend, to go eat somewhere.
It’s kind of skeptical why our families aren’t in on what we’re doing, as far as going to these games. These are lifetime games and I want my family to be a part of them. It would be nice if the NCAA could help out there. There’s a lot of big topics that go on about it, but the little things are what, I think, as an athlete are the ones we kind of talk about the most.
VanVleet: I just want a grocery card. Even $100 a month, that doesn’t come out of my stipend.
What do you use your stipend for?
VanVleet: Rent and other stuff.
Baker: Rent, utilities.
Your senior years are here. The relationships that you three built, will they stand the test of time?
VanVleet: They better, or I’m going to pop up at somebody’s door. They will. That’s the thing about it being the last go-around, it really doesn’t feel like it because you know these are going to be lifetime friends.
See Baker, VanVleet and Wessel talk about their Shocker careers in a video attached to this story.