Yanni Wetzell looks ahead to new college season and beyond
We recently had a chance to catch up with former Westlake and Harbour standout Yanni Wetzell during his brief holiday back on the North Shore.
The 6’10” forward is on a basketball scholarship at Vanderbilt University where he was a redshirt junior for the 2017-18 season after transferring from St Mary’s University, Texas.
In his sophomore season at St Mary’s Wetzell was selected on the All-Heartland Conference Second Team after averaging 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.
His performances impressed the Vanderbilt staff earning him promotion from NCAA Division II basketball at St Mary’s to Division I play with the Vanderbilt Commodores.
Transferring meant a redshirt year (unable to play competitive games due to transfer rules) for Wetzell in the 2017-18 season and we chatted about the implications of that, his move into the higher echelons of college basketball and his ambitions for the future.
We began by discussing the major differences he noticed when moving to Vanderbilt.
“The practices are not as long but the intensity is the thing. You always have to be locked in because if you miss the slightest little thing you’ll be on the line running. Yeah you got to be locked in and be ready to go at all times.
“It took me a while to adjust to the speed of the game. When I first arrived in the summer of 2017 I knew I was a few leaps behind honestly. It took me the rest of the summer and into the fall semester to kind of get adjusted and get used to the pace of the game because there are just a different level of athletes. The Southeastern Conference is probably the most athletic conference in college basketball (the Southeastern Conference contains the likes of Kentucky, Alabama and Tennessee).
“You have to learn to play to your strengths because obviously sometimes you can’t compete in the athletic department so you have to use your own strengths to counter their abilities.”
Asked about the possibility of playing significant minutes for the Commodores next season Wetzell was understandably cautious in his reply.
“Right now things are looking hopeful, I just have to work hard during the summer and prove myself. No matter where you are there is always going to be competition at that level; it’s whoever is playing best. It’s all about competition at practices and scrimmages.”
“But I’m in good hands as three of our coaching staff have NBA experience and I’m learning a lot from them.”
Head Coach Bryce Drew played six seasons in the NBA but is probably most famous for making “The Shot” in the first round of the 1998 NCAA Tournament as Valparaiso beat Ole Miss – check it out on YouTube.
In many ways a season of not playing was a help for Wetzell both from a training perspective and an academic standpoint.
“When the team was on the road we could focus a little more on our studies but when the team was in town it was not a whole lot different because you are doing as many practices if not more than the rest of the team.
“I roomed with the other redshirt on the team Matt Ryan. Matt is a small forward who played at Notre Dame so we were in the same boat.
“When the team were on the road at weekends we got to see a bit of the country going to places like Alabama and Ohio State – you can experience a bit more of college life when you are a redshirt that’s for sure.
“I’m Studying Economics with a Business Minor. Because I redshirted I will be able to graduate next year and then do a Masters as I’ll have another year of eligibility.”
Looking back Wetzell admits it was a rough year for the team as they won only six of eighteen conference games and finished with an overall record of 12 wins and 20 losses.
“Expectations are a lot higher for the 2018-19 season. We have a couple of freshman studs coming in – top 10 on ESPN rankings – so we are looking a lot deeper.”
Vanderbilt play their home games in the Memorial Gymnasium. The Stadium, built in 1952 as a memorial to all Vanderbilt men and women who served in Word War II, is quirky in that the team benches are situated on the baseline.
“It also has a raised floor and was designed to be like a stage for a show. If you are in the court side seats the floor is at chest level,” said Wetzel.
“It’s a 14,000 seater stadium and most conference games it sells out. The atmosphere is terrific and the crowd is really loud,” he added.
“That’s another difference between Division one and Division two is the size of the crowds and the level of professionalism.
“You are really taken care of there is a lot more focus on your body and your well-being. We also have academic advisors, tutors, study room and there is plenty of help on and off the court.”
Having had a taste of international basketball on the New Zealand Select tours to China in 2016 and 2017 Wetzell has definite goals when it comes to wearing the black singlet.
“The Tall Blacks is a massive goal of mine and always has been and then playing professionally after college. I love the sport and want to keep playing as long as I can.
“After playing I’m looking down that finance and business track in the future – the ball will have to stop bouncing sometime!”
That’s some way off as right now the ball is bouncing in the right direction for Yanni.
Footnote. Vanderbilt was the first university to play a game of organized basketball when they took on New Brighton YMCA two years after Dr James Naismith had founded the game in 1891.
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