Wichita State basketball coach Gregg Marshall knows junior Evan Wessel will always hustle, always be in the right place and always try to make the right play.
He doesn’t always need to score, just enough to force defenses to pay attention. Wessel didn’t do that last season, when he missed 22 of 25 three-pointers, and saw his playing time shrink. Marshall says Wessel, a 6-foot-4 swingman, is making shots in practice and that makes him a candidate to join WSU’s starting lineup as a forward who can stretch defenses.
“It’s feeling a lot better,” Wessel said. “The shot is feeling great and it just comes with making shots and extra practice. It’s getting in the gym and getting that confidence back.”
The basics of WSU’s offense are easy to picture.
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Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker will handle the ball, drive and make threes. Darius Carter will score in and around the post. Tekele Cotton will take whatever shots come his way. If that fifth player is capable of making threes, it forces the defense to cover a lot of space and frees up driving lanes for the guards and makes it hard to double-team Carter. Ben Smith played the role of a forward who can rebound and defend bigger players while making threes superbly in 2012. Cleanthony Early stretched defenses the past two seasons from behind the arc.
Wessel doesn’t need to be as accurate or prolific as those two to be an asset.
“He’s been knocking down shots,” guard Fred VanVleet said. “I think he’s got it back, I really do. We really need him to play a big part. He can really stretch the floor at that position with his outside shooting.”
Wessel, VanVleet points out, played through some obstacles last season. He started WSU’s first eight games in 2012, and made 11 of 24 threes, before a broken pinky finger ended his season. He watched the 2013 Final Four run from the bench. Last season, he shot poorly to start and, playing behind Early, lost confidence.
“I’m trying to pump him up every day and let him go out there and let everything hang out,” VanVleet said.
Marshall knows that when Wessel plays — basketball or football, as he did at Heights — his teams win. Heights won three Class 6A basketball titles and the 2010 Class 6A football title with Wessel in the lineup.
“This kid is doing something right to affect winning,” Marshall said. “And those things aren’t always score 20 points or even 10 points. It’s play great defense. Set a great screen. Get on the floor first for a loose ball. Be a great teammate.”
His versatility offers Marshall the option to play small with Wessel at power forward or big with him at small forward. Wessel played most minutes at small forward in the past.
“Anything that will get me on the court or how I can help the team is what I want to do,” he said. “You’ve still got to rebound and play defense. It’s really not that big a step.”
Wessel can handle the mental side of playing any position required. When he plays power forward against bigger, better athletes, he will rely on the hustle and smarts that make him one of Marshall’s favorites.
“He can out-tough anybody,” VanVleet said. “And I think he can play-make a little bit more than we give him credit for. It’s just all about a confidence thing.”
From Heiar’s home — Guard Jared Walker is WSU’s new walk-on, attracted to the Shockers by his connection to assistant coach Greg Heiar and the university’s mechanical engineering program.
Walker played at Dubuque (Iowa) Wahlert High, the same school as Heiar.
“He’s good friends with my family and my brother knows him really well,” Walker said. “That’s how I got the idea. I talked to him about the school down here and the engineering program. That’s one of the main reasons I came here, and I decided to walk on and play basketball, as well.”
Walker (6-3) averaged 11.2 points and 4.7 assists as a senior and helped Wahlert win the Class 3A title. He is prepared for the thankless role of walk-on. His job is to make the rotation players better by working hard in practice.
“I know I’m not the most talented out here, but I know I can control my effort,” he said.
Hamilton stays close — Sunrise Christian Academy forward Eric Hamilton visited Wichita State’s practice earlier this week, something he says is a regular occurrence.
He talks to WSU coaches frequently and Sunrise coach Luke Barnwell runs drills and plays similar to those the Shockers use. Later his month, Hamilton plans to sign a letter of intent with WSU for a second time.
“That’s why I’m here and not anywhere else,” he said. “I can do nothing but benefit from this situation.”
Hamilton, a 6-foot-8 forward from Duluth, Ga., signed with WSU a year ago. He took summer classes at WSU and practiced with the team. Late in the summer, he decided a season of prep school would benefit him and keep WSU at the NCAA limit of 13 scholarships. He will spend the year at Sunrise working on his game against good competition in practice and in games against junior colleges and other prep schools.
“It’s like I’m pretty much learning second-hand from (WSU coaches),” Hamilton said. “I’ll have a feel for the system a year early. I’m progressing a lot, with my ball-handling and defense. My motor is taking off, too.”
Hamilton will be a freshman in 2015-16 and have four seasons of eligibility at WSU. The signing period begins Nov. 12. WSU also has non-binding commitments from guards Landry Shamet of Park Hill (Mo.) and Tyrone Taylor of Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy and forward Markis McDuffie from St. Anthony (N.J.).
Live from St. Louis — Leftovers from the MVC’s basketball media day on Tuesday.
▪ Indiana State junior Khristian Smith worked out with former Sycamore Kelyn Block during the summer in Indianapolis. Smith, who averaged 10.5 points and 4.3 rebounds last season, assumes a much bigger role with the loss of Jake Odum and Manny Arop.
“We did more low post (drills) and more ball-handling,” Smith said. “I have to step up a little more. He knows my game and he knows how the Valley is.”
Smith (6-6) earned MVC Sixth Man of the Year honors last season.
“He’s a guy that could have started on about any team in the league last year, other than maybe Wichita State,” Sycamores coach Greg Lansing said. “We’re going to run stuff through him. We’re going to get him touches. He’s going to have to play at a high level for us to be in the conversation at the end of the year.”
▪ It isn’t often that a junior-college transfer enters a program and outworks his teammates. It normally takes them time to figure out the demands of NCAA Division I basketball.
Sycamores guard Grant Prusator, a transfer from Highland (Ill.) Community College is the team’s No. 1 gym rat. He shows up at 6 a.m. for footwork, shooting and weight lifting drills.
“He’s just absolutely dove into it with everything he’s got,” Lansing said. “He’s worked as hard, since he’s been on campus, as anybody I’ve ever been around.”
Prusator, a sophomore, averaged 13 points and made 42.7 percent of his threes as a freshman. He scored 32 points and made 8 of 13 three-pointers in an 81-79 loss to eventual NJCAA champion Jones County (Miss) in the national tournament in Hutchinson.
“He’s a shooter,” Sycamores senior Jake Kitchell said. “I think that’s something we’ve kind of been lacking the past few years, so I think he can come out and make a few buckets for us.”
▪ Wichita State got 45 of the possible 46 first-place votes in the men’s poll. Illinois State coach Dan Muller, while giving full credit to the Shockers, voted for his team.
“It’s because I have confidence in my team,” he told Jim Benson of the Pantagraph. “Wichita State deserves to be preseason No. 1 in our league and Northern Iowa deserves to be preseason No. 2 in our league. Don’t get me wrong, but I tried to rank teams as I saw them finishing in the end.”
Voters slotted Illinois State fifth.
▪ Drake guard Gary Ricks Jr. averaged 12.3 points in eight games last season before a broken foot ended his season. While coach Ray Giacoletti missed his services, it is helpful to have another senior on the roster to help eight newcomers acclimate.
“We needed experience,” Giacoletti said. “He’s healthy and playing with no pain.”
▪ NCAA cost-cutting measures caused most schools to stop issuing glossy media guides. Most hand out modest fact sheets, rosters, bios and statistics stapled together.
Southern Illinois deserves mention for its clever cover. Coach Barry Hinson is pictured, surrounded by his players, above the words “New team. New heights. Same short coach.”
▪ Northern Iowa’s roster includes another Koch (Cook). Redshirt freshman Bennett Koch, a 6-9 forward) is the third brother to play for the Panthers. Adam Koch, who chose UNI over Wichita State, earned MVC Player of the Year honors in 2010. Jake Koch scored 1,113 points from 2009-13.