ST. LOUIS — When he rose from the Wichita State bench, like a phoenix, then pulled off his basketball warmup to signify that he was entering the fray, Ron Baker received a standing ovation from 2,500-or-so Shocker fans who hadnt seen him in a while.
The applause Friday night at the Scottrade Center was more polite than raucous because, lets be real here, Baker had been out 11 weeks with a stress fracture in his foot. What was he really going to do to help the Shockers in their Missouri Valley Conference quarterfinal game against Missouri State?
If you had Baker for 15 points, which included some of the biggest baskets of a tighter-than-expected game, then collect your winnings.
If you had Baker playing 19 minutes, youre a savant and you shouldnt waste your time concerning yourself with basketball games.
If you figured Baker would made 5 of 7 shots, dish out a pair of assists and make three important three-pointers, then go ahead and tell us what you were smoking.
Because I didnt think any of that was possible for a kid who has been out for as long as Baker has been.
So many people have been asking me if I was going to play, said Baker, who had a huge role in the Shockers 69-59 win. I didnt know if I was going to or not. My biggest thing was just to help the team in any way I could and do the little things right. Just have fun.
The 6-foot-3 Baker, a redshirt freshman from Scott City, was part of the first wave of Shocker subs. He entered the game sheepishly, almost, then grew fangs.
Baker scored his first points with 1:43 left in the first half. His basket gave the Shockers a two-point lead over a feisty, if outmanned, Missouri State team.
A flurry of three Baker three-pointers during a span of 2:57 early in the second half turned a tie game into a 10-point Shocker cushion.
When he was out of the game and after three months WSU coach Gregg Marshall knew he couldnt push Baker the Shockers offense wheezed and coughed. But when Baker was in, it was as if a new carburetor had been slipped into the engine. The offense purred.
My first three-pointer kind of got me excited, said Baker, who had been averaging 7.3 points and shooting 36.5 percent when he was sidelined. I spent some time tonight trying to get my confidence back. After that I just started launching.
If Baker was timid, Id hate to see what hes like when hes pushy. He didnt have to think about what he was doing, even after such a long absence. He was helpful in breaking Missouri States press and committed just one turnover.
Baker, on fresh legs, ran ahead of the pack all night.
Lets give a little credit to the Shockers manager of player development, Devon Smith, for doing some player developing Friday before the game.
Smith suggested Baker watch some video of Dukes win over Miami (Fla.) last week in which the Blue Devils 6-11 Ryan Kelly returned after being sidelined for two months by a foot injury.
Kelly scored 36 points for Duke on 10-of-14 shooting. He made seven three-pointers and had seven rebounds.
I did take some notes on that, Baker said. It was kind of inspiring to see. Seeing what he did against Miami, that was pretty special. Im sure he felt some of the same things I was feeling in coming back.
I know what youre thinking, Shocker fans. How many more wins would Wichita State have had Baker not gone down? How high in the rankings would the Shockers have climbed?
You probably shouldnt play those games. Just enjoy the fact that Baker is back at a crucial time of the season when so much is at stake.
Baker said the past 11 weeks have tried every ounce of his patience. He sat out the 2011-12 season as a redshirt, so being on the shelf again probably made him feel like an expired can of green beans.
I really didnt do much and then the past four weeks Ive been working out in the pool, trying to get some of my stamina and endurance back, Baker said. That didnt put a lot of stress on my legs and it helped work me back into it all instead of jumping right into practice and being all herky-jerky.
Bakers foot, he said, still aches. Just not in the place where the stress fracture occurred.
Farther down on my foot, he said. But thats just part of the deal coming back. Its not pain, really. Just some achiness, I guess you could say.
Baker is willing to accept a little uneasiness if it means getting back on the floor. And the Shockers welcome the relief he brings. Its a win-win.