PROVIDENCE—“My wife and I were laughing because someone posted a photo of him from his senior year in Scott City and he had a perm,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall told reporters following the Shockers’ win over Arizona.
Few laugh at the sight of Ron Baker now, whose on ball defense, perfect rotations, and post digs helped Wichita State hold Arizona 25-points below their season scoring average. This afternoon Baker and teammates look to shock the Miami Hurricanes.
Final: Wichita State 65, Arizona 55. Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker are going on one last March adventure together. pic.twitter.com/VZg9ojM5TK
— SB Nation CBB (@SBNationCBB) March 18, 2016
“Mr. [Peter] Roby from the NCAA Selection Committee from Northeastern is obviously a basketball guy, and he paid Ron a beautiful compliment as I was walking off the court. He goes, ‘Ron Baker is never in the wrong position. Ron Baker is one of the hardest-working defenders I’ve ever seen,’” Marshall told reporters.
The folks travelling from Scott City, Kansas, for front-row seats at 11th-seeded Wichita State’s “upset” over 6th-seeded Arizona never doubted that a country boy with a perm (perhaps the straight hair he wears now more literally fits that description than his previous naturally curling locks) could not only guard, but start and win four consecutive NCAA first round tournament games.
“We knew at an early age he’d be this good. You know how great players just slow the game down? He [Ron Baker] was so good, that he just made everything look slow and easy,” Scott City, Kansas-native Greg Glunz tells Breitbart Sports.
That Ron Baker went from a tiny, 3A western Kansas high school star to three-time MVC all-star suggests that Wichita State prides itself on unorthodox recruiting narratives.
“Well, we don’t normally get the five-star or even four-star recruits. We’re starting to get a few,” Marshall told reporters after the first round win.
As the five-year trajectory of under-recruited redshirt senior Baker demonstrates, Wichita State certainly values the coachable over the unapproachable.
“We want guys that want to be a part of something bigger than themselves: like skill development, body development, and falling in love with the process of being great,” Marshall tells Breitbart Sports. “We want coachable, everyday guys.”
Since the everyday guys in Scott City sat 360 miles from Lawrence, and more than four hours from both Kansas State and Wichita State, the idea of Frank Martin (ex-Kansas State coach) or Bill Self evaluating Baker during high school became a delusion of grandeur. While Midwestern D2s and some low division 1s liked the sharpshooting and mistake-free Baker, JuCo and prep school seemed like the logical path to a D1 scholarship.
“We tried to get K-State to come out, but for 3A, 4A schools, it’s tough to get serious looks,” recalled Scott City, Kansas-native John Fairleigh during Thursday’s game.
Wichita State eventually came knocking, but without an available scholarship. Only after Baker’s parents footed the bill for his freshmen year, did Marshall grant Baker a walk-on year. During the 2011-12 season, in which Baker subsequently redshirted, he added confidence and fifteen pounds of muscle. Most importantly, he went on scholarship that summer.
“I was always a guy that pushed myself to get better, then when you get guys that push you in different drills, it gets your confidence up to a new level and you become a true player,” Baker tells Breitbart Sports. “That’s what I’ve gotten at Wichita State.”
On opening night in 2012-13, Baker led the Shockers in scoring, but soon missed 21 games with a foot injury. He returned for the MVC postseason tourney, cracked the starting lineup in a first-round NCAA win against Pitt, then scored16 points in an upset over top seeded Gonzaga in the next round. Two weeks later, the Shockers lost to eventual national champion Louisville, in their first Final Four appearance since 1965. Yet, recalling the overwhelming force in Thursday’s win over Arizona, defense carried the Shockers to the NCAA semifinals in 2013.
Before Wichita State became today’s fashionable office-pool pick or Fred VanVleet and Baker held Arizona to a season low 55 points, America wondered how Ron Baker, at just six-foot-three, battled all five positions on defense during the 2013 Final Four. Only the Scott City faithful flying into Providence for Game Two of the hometown kid’s fourth and final NCAA go-around, and coach Marshall, know Ron Baker’s secret lies in being country strong.
“He had a curly – really curly hair. His hair is naturally curly, but this was really curly, like an afro curly. And his arms were about as big around as this cup. But he’s got broad shoulders and he’s got big hands.” Marshall told reporters after the Arizona win. “He’s country strong is what I say.”