Perhaps no college basketball program and its fans have seen their fortunes change over the past four seasons more than Wichita State has.
The Final Four in 2013. An undefeated regular season and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in 2014. The Sweet 16 – thanks to a win over the University of Kansas – in 2015.
And next Saturday at Koch Arena, against Illinois State, maybe a moment to trump them all: the final home game for WSU seniors Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet and Evan Wessel, players whose careers have played out against the backdrop of all those landmark moments.
Their stories all seem like chapter and verse to WSU fans at this point and have been told ad nauseam.
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Baker, the walk-on from Scott City who turned into an All-American and a college hoops matinee idol.
VanVleet, who scrapped and clawed his way out of Rockford, Ill., to become the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, the Shockers’ all-time assists leader and an All-American.
Wessel, a Wichita native and two-year starter who played the greatest game of his career in the win over KU and has 103 career wins, among the best in school history.
There is little doubt that the city they play in loves each of them – a bond that will last a lifetime and span generations to come.
WSU fan Dan Shurtz said he grew up watching WSU legends Antoine Carr, Cliff Levingston and Xavier McDaniel at Levitt Arena. And now, with three young children of his own – Jackson, Maddox and Ava Grace – he has witnessed that little bit of family history repeat itself in ways he could never have imagined.
“When I grew up, it was Carr, Levingston and McDaniel that made me fall in love with Wichita State,” Shurtz said. “Growing up in Wichita and going to those games at the Roundhouse when you’re 8 or 9 years old makes a big impression, because right up the road you’ve got Danny and the Miracles at KU and then Mitch Richmond at K-State. … It’s hard not to love basketball growing up around here.
My sons, they adore these guys. My daughter, too. … They’re hooked for life, and I love it.
Dan Shurtz, WSU basketball fan
“But as I got older and I started to have kids, things changed. Once Gregg Marshall got here, you could tell something different was going on. Never in a million years did I think I would get to see WSU in the Final Four or go undefeated during the regular season, and I’ve got to experience that through my kids’ eyes, especially my two boys, and that’s been really special,” he said. “To see my oldest son at 9 years old and how excited he was to have his team in the Final Four. And the next year to go 35-0 and then see them just devastated after that loss to Kentucky. … And the next year to get to see the team cut down the nets at Koch Arena and have players coming over like Tekele Cotton, Ron, Fred and Evan to high-five the kids. … Those are special moments. Those are things they’ll remember forever.
“My sons, they adore these guys. My daughter, too. ... They’re hooked for life, and I love it.”
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The hallway leading to the WSU locker room can be a chaotic place after home games. Families, fans, recruits, girlfriends – even the odd celebrity has been known to show their face down there.
Never is that chaos more pronounced than around Baker, a supernova of a Shocker if there ever were one. Each player attracts his own amount of attention, and never is that attention more focused and direct than with Baker.
There is an endless amount of pictures to be taken, of jerseys and programs to be signed. And Baker, to his credit, tries to please everyone.
It has been this way since he burst onto the national scene on the run to the Final Four his freshman season.
The attention became so overwhelming the next season that since then, Baker has had a security guard escort him out of the arena after most games.
“Ron and Fred, obviously, people gravitate toward them a little more, but we’re there for all of them if they need it,” said Brad Pittman, WSU associate athletic director of facilities and operations, who runs game day operations at Koch Arena.
They’re more popular because they’ve been here for four years and been very successful, and they’re good kids.
WSU associate athletic director Brad Pittman on the attention Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet get from fans
“But obviously, Fred and Ron have needed it a little more than the others. They’re more popular because they’ve been here for four years and been very successful, and they’re good kids.
“People have caught on to where they come out, where they leave the building, and they’ll come outside and wait for them,” he said. “Ron and Fred are good guys, so they won’t say no to someone who wants an autograph, but they’ll spend all night out there if they sign everything for everybody, and we want them to get home, do good in the classroom and have as normal of lives as possible.”
The past three seasons, jerseys with Baker’s No. 31 have sold at a brisk rate, not only in the fan shop on the mezzanine at Koch Arena but also at local sporting goods stores like Dick’s and Tad’s Locker Room, where adult sizes were going for $75 each and kids sizes for $60 each.
Last week, the WSU bookstore knocked $30 off Baker’s jersey, along with VanVleet’s No. 23 and Wessel’s No. 3, and placed them at the entrance to the store. When Shocker games are shown on ESPN, it’s Baker’s face front and center on promotional material.
Look in the stands at Koch Arena during a home game, and you’re sure to see a sea of No. 31 jerseys.
“You do see the impact, but it’s easier to look at what impact has the Shockers’ basketball team made as opposed to Fred and Ron, who are obviously guiding the team,” said WSU economics professor Martin Perline, who was the school’s faculty athletics representative for more than 30 years and has a specialty in sports economics. “It’s really hard to separate one from the other.
“Look at the 31 and 23 (jerseys), sure, but a better way to look at is in terms of the school and the community.
“In terms of the school, any ballgame the tickets are sold out. Which probably means increased prices for tickets, which means more booster income, because the boosters want good tickets … so more contributions are coming in.
“Look at it like this: Everybody likes a winner … and what you have to do, and you don’t really want to say it, is turn around and have the team not do so well and see what happens.”
After Thursday’s penultimate home game, a rout of Missouri State, Baker once again found himself coming out of the locker room and facing a hallway full of fans. Each wanted a picture. Each wanted an autograph.
Except for one – a small, blonde girl, maybe 2 years old, wearing a Shocker T-shirt and being held by her father.
“There’s Ron, do you want to say ‘Hi’ to him?” the father asked.
The little girl looked at Baker, then quickly buried her head in her father’s chest.
“I don’t think she likes me,” Baker said, smiling.
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If there is one player Wichitans can point to as representative of blue-collar ethos, it’s probably VanVleet.
Seemingly never satisfied with wins and openly disgusted with losses, the 6-foot guard had his coming-out party on the run to the Final Four, like Baker, and cemented his status as the team’s leader the next season on the way to winning MVC Player of the Year, an honor he is likely to repeat this season.
And, like Baker, the demands on his time and the attention focused on him the past three seasons have been extreme. Like Baker, he’s hounded for pictures and autographs seemingly everywhere he goes.
It’s attention that can be overwhelming if not handled properly, according to Bryan Holmgren, WSU’s assistant director for media relations, who handles the team’s media requests.
“I would say they could do as many interviews as they’re willing to do,” Holmgren said. “The demand is insatiable, and it really takes a team effort on our end to deal with it all.
As far as Ron and Fred go, I feel like they understand that the media is a way for the fans to connect with them, and I think they feel a real responsibility in that aspect. And to that end, they’ve been a dream to work with.
Bryan Holmgren, assistant director of media relations for WSU’s athletic department
“As far as Ron and Fred go, I feel like they understand that the media is a way for the fans to connect with them, and I think they feel a real responsibility in that aspect. And to that end, they’ve been a dream to work with.”
WSU coach Gregg Marshall has final say on media requests but doesn’t micromanage the access.
“He wants them to want to do it,” Holmgren said. “And we don’t want them to ever feel like they’re being exploited.
“I don’t know that I’ll ever have another two players that not only garner this much attention or handle it this well. They say they’re going to do something, that’s their word and they always do it. I’ll miss that greatly.”
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Wessel’s connection with the city and the school is hard to quantify, if only because it runs so deep.
His grandfather, Ev, played basketball at WSU. His father, Todd, played football there.
Wessel’s game against KU in last year’s NCAA Tournament – he hit four three-pointers and grabbed nine rebounds in a showdown against his former high school teammate Perry Ellis – put him in a rare air of hometown heroes.
Probably the best insight into Wessel’s personality can be seen on Tuesday and Friday nights in the gymnasium at Wichita Heights, where he won three Class 6A state championships with Ellis.
You can often look several rows behind the bench and see Wessel, sitting by himself and watching the games, as focused as anyone in the gym.
“I try to come to as many games as I can, as long as we’re in town,” Wessel said. “It’s still my school. I enjoy coming back, I enjoy being around the people there.”
It’s also not uncommon for him to wait in the hallway outside the locker room after the game to have a quick conversation with Heights coach Joe Auer.
I can’t think of a better role model to have for these kids we have at the school right now.
Heights basketball coach Joe Auer on former Heights player and current WSU senior Evan Wessel
“I think if you know anything about him or his family, you know how loyal they are, you know how loyal Evan is,” Auer said. “I can’t think of a better role model to have for these kids we have at the school right now.
“I wouldn’t miss that final game (at Koch Arena) for the world. … I think it’s going to be a very emotional deal for a lot of people; I know it will be for my wife and I. We look at Evan like he’s our family … what he’s accomplished, what he’s done; he leaves everything better than when he found it.”
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The void when the players leave will be hard to fill – but many of the young players on the roster could take that place in the hearts of a city whose interest in the Shockers seems to grow exponentially each season.
Another Wichita native, guard Conner Frankamp, could be one. Sophomore Zach Brown could be another.
Freshman Markis McDuffie has shown flashes of star potential and could be another Cleanthony Early, the WSU star who ended up being drafted by the New York Knicks.
But until then, there’s Saturday. And a boatload of feelings that will come with it.
I think there will be a lot of emotions; I definitely know there will be for me. … I think it’s going to be an emotional day for a lot of people.
WSU’s Ron Baker on next Saturday’s Senior Night
“I think there will be a lot of emotions; I definitely know there will be for me,” Baker said. “I’m also thinking about everybody else, though. I think it’s going to be an emotional day for a lot of people.”
An entire city, actually.