Seniors prepare for emotional finale

Evan Pflugradt

Five years ago, Ron Baker made the four-hour drive from Scott City to Wichita and unpacked his belongings into a two-person room in Fairmount Towers with roommate Evan Wessel. A year later, Fred VanVleet made the 10-hour journey from Rockford, Illinois. Baker sold him on a visit, and the bond grew to three.

Baker and VanVleet took Wichita State on an upward trajectory of victories, including a Final Four trip their freshman season. Wessel did, too, contributing in eight games before a broken finger ended his season.

As sophomores, Baker and VanVleet entered the starting lineup and Wessel contributed off the bench. The three helped write one of college basketball’s most prolific stories, a historic 35-1 season. In their junior season, the three joined the starting lineup and together they rallied 30 wins and a Sweet 16 appearance.

They’ve defeated nearly all obstacles in their way when they step onto the court together, but stepping off the court could be their most difficult obstacle yet.

“I’ve been thinking about it all month,” Baker said. “Walking off the court one last time is going to be tough for me. It’ll be an emotional day from the get-go.”

For one final time, Baker, VanVleet and Wessel will be called out into the starting lineups in front of a crowd of more than 10,000 fans in Charles Koch Arena.

“It’s one of those things you know is coming, but you don’t want it to,” Wessel said.

Saturday’s home finale against Illinois State is guaranteed to be an emotional chapter in the books for three of the program’s most storied careers.

“They’re all pretty emotional, but this one could be the most emotional because of what these young men have meant to me personally, to this program, to their teammates, the university, the city of Wichita, the state of Kansas, and for that matter, college basketball over the last four years,” Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall said. “They’re icons. They’re college basketball icons. They’ve helped put this program on the map and remained relevant for quite a long while.”

The Wichita community has been focused on the three players soon after their arrival, and for no shortage of reasons. They built the nation’s longest home-winning streak of 43 games. They brought the program a Final Four, a Sweet 16 and a streak of 42 weeks in the AP Top 25 polls.

“We owe them a debt of gratitude not just because of what they’ve done, but how they’ve done it,” Marshall said. “They’ve done it in a tremendous, first-class way. They’ve been nothing but a joy to coach and be around. I think we have all benefitted from their decision to come to school here.”

They’ve built a lot for the program, but nothing is bigger than the bond they’ve built with each other and the university.

“It’s a little overwhelming,” VanVleet said. “It seems to be the only thing everyone is talking about. Everyone’s emotions are high around campus. We’re not getting any of the time back that has passed, might as well focus on trying to enjoy it.”

For Baker, VanVleet and Wessel, the memories are countless, and it’s a reason their bond won’t easily be separated.

“Being with these two in the locker room, people don’t understand the relationships we have with one another,” Baker said. “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. All the wins, all the special moments we had together, those are the things I’ll remember most.”

Wessel said they were motivated to leave the program better than when they arrived; with no shortage of accolades, they’ve built legacies that will be instilled in the program long after their departure.

“I want to be the start of a legacy,” Baker said. “Hopefully us three leave something, like wisdom and confidence, behind with these younger guys so they can carry on with the success and all the good things that we brought up.”