Trio of Wichita State seniors prepping for final home game
WICHITA, Kan. (AP) Gregg Marshall has gone through many senior days over the course of 30-plus years in coaching, from those at tiny Randolph-Macon and Belmont Abbey to his successful run at Wichita State.
This weekend's may be the most emotional of all.
When the Shockers take on Illinois State in their home finale Saturday, it will be the final home game for Evan Wessel, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet. The trio helped take Wichita State to the Final Four as freshmen, went unbeaten in the regular season as sophomores, knocked off in-state rival Kansas in the NCAA Tournament as juniors - and firmly established the Shockers as a mid-major powerhouse.
''They're icons,'' Marshall said. ''They're bigger than south-central Kansas. They're college basketball icons. They've helped put this program on the map and remained relevant for quite a long while.
''We owe them a debt of gratitude,'' he said, ''not just because of what they've done but how they've done it. They've done it in a tremendous, first-class way. They've been nothing but a joy to coach.''
The Shockers (22-7, 15-2 Missouri Valley) have amassed 117 wins over the past four seasons. They've won at least a share of four conference titles. They've been to the NCAA Tournament every year, twice made it out of the opening weekend and in 2013 made it to the final weekend.
That year, they gave Louisville arguably its toughest test on its way to the national title.
It remains the most memorable moment of Wessel's career, even though he was sidelined by an injury.
''Watching these two break out in the tournament, for me as a teammate, you want to see a couple of your friends do well,'' he said of Baker and VanVleet. ''They definitely stepped up and shined.'
But there have been plenty of other memorable moments, from in-season tournament titles such as the one the Shockers capture in Cancun, to the conference tournament championships won in St. Louis.
''All the wins, all the special moments you had together, those are the things I'll remember the most,'' Baker said. ''Just being with these two in the locker room, people don't understand the relationships we have with one another. Tightly bonded. Loyal to one another. Trustworthy. Those types of things go a long way when you see each other 10 hours a day for 500 days in a row.''
Anton Grady and Bush Wamukota will also be playing their final home game Saturday, and will no doubt receive an appreciative reception from the crowd. But the trio of Wessel, VanVleet and Baker is such a rarity in college basketball these days that this week has turned into a celebration of them.
Very rarely does a trio contribute right away as freshmen then stick together for four years.
''Lots of tears from people that have been here,'' VanVleet said. ''With the type of environment around here, (we're) pretty personal with people, whether it's the academic office or around the arena. It feels like you've shared so much throughout these years.''
They have certainly left their mark on the record books.
With a win on Saturday, VanVleet will move within three of Tekele Cotton's school record for wins and break a tie for the Missouri Valley record with his 63rd league victory. He is already the school's career leader in assists, and he's on pace to set the school record for steals in a career.
Baker is one of six Division I players in the past 20 seasons with at least 1,500 points, 70 blocks and a 1.50 assist-to-turnover ratio. The pride of tiny Scott City, Kansas, scored 19 points in Wednesday night's victory over Loyola, moving him into the top 10 in school history with 1,551.
Wessel may not have put up numbers like VanVleet and Baker, but the local boy's toughness - often playing power forward at 6-foot-4 - is impossible to measure.
''For me, it's a little overwhelming,'' Baker said. ''It seems to be the only thing everyone is talking about. Everyone's emotions are pretty high around campus, especially for the people that have been here all five years that we have. For me, I'm just trying to focus the best I can on the next game.
''We're not getting any of the time back that has already passed,'' he added. ''I'll just enjoy these last couple of days.''