The area around Wichita State’s basketball bench usually resembles a bus stop. People are getting on and off constantly as Coach Gregg Marshall freely substitutes.
But this season could be different. Marshall has a pair of starting guards — Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker — who might do something only a couple of others have done during Marshall’s seven seasons: consistently play 30 minutes or more in a game.
It has taken one exhibition game blowout and a season-opening 93-50 win over Emporia State on Saturday afternoon at Koch Arena for me to see what is so plain — that VanVleet and Baker, just sophomores, are the future and more importantly the present of Shocker basketball.
VanVleet came to Wichita State with a lot of advance hype out of Rockford, Ill., where he was one of the best players in the state during his senior season.
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Baker, too, was one of the best players in his state. Which happens to be Kansas. But he played in Scott City, a place recruiters apparently do not flock.
How else to explain how he was considering a Division II offer from Fort Hays State before WSU swooped in?
Baker and VanVleet — get used to hearing their names together — combined for 29 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds during Saturday’s walkover. Baker had the only turnover as the duo played a total of 50 minutes. They were 10 of 14 from the field and had five steals, four by VanVleet.
They have high basketball IQs and play like seniors. They don’t need a lot of coaching, either.
“I coach them with a smile on my face,” Marshall said. “I love coaching those guys. They understand what we’re trying to do sometimes better than I do. I thought they had some beautiful assists tonight and made some beautiful shots. They rebound well, defend well, they just make basketball plays. They have a very good understanding of what it takes to be successful.
“And they’re just sophomores.”
Marshall was almost daydreaming, it appeared, as he spoke those last four words. I’m not saying he can ease into a rocking chair these next three seasons, but VanVleet and Baker will make his job a lot easier. And a lot more fun.
“They’re pretty good,’’ Marshall said. “They have a good chemistry together.’’
He agreed that VanVleet and Baker might frequently bust through the 30-minute barrier. In a system that preaches quality depth with little fall-off when non-starters are on the floor, this is an interesting development. But not a surprising one.
VanVleet and Baker have to play. They’re that good.
In the rare times when VanVleet isn’t on the floor, Baker can take over at the point. And without much of a problem.
“I still like to develop depth because things can happen,” Marshall said. “Things like injuries and foul problems. Hopefully they won’t happen, but you’ve got to have guys who can play and this is the time to develop depth.’’
In a pinch, junior Tekele Cotton, so valuable as a perimeter defender, could play at the point. Senior Nick Wiggins and junior Evan Wessel are going to get their fair share of backcourt minutes.
But VanVleet and Baker are going to be out there a lot.
“Fred is a teammate-first kind of player, like I am,” Baker said. “Neither of us care how we win games, as long as we win.”
The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Baker is relatively new to the point, but it doesn’t show. He has always had a sixth sense about basketball and sees the floor as well as any Shocker, including VanVleet, whose size (5-11, 190) provides a point-guard look.
“I like reading defenses,” Baker said. “It’s enjoyable to have the ball in your hands and to pass it here, pass it there. I like being able to see the whole floor.”
Baker, though, is still most comfortable as VanVleet’s wing man. They do make quite a pair.
“Ron makes my job as a point guard so much easier,” VanVleet said. “He’s a great player, a really talented offensive player. You don’t see many guys with his size and strength who can move like he does.”
VanVleet gives Baker really good grades in adapting to his part-time point duties, too.
“He’s been doing a lot better there,” VanVleet said. “It’s not his natural position, but Ron has a full skill set, so for him it comes naturally. He makes it look pretty easy and with more reps there, he’ll improve even more as the season goes on.”
Baker, of course, is high in his praise for VanVleet.
“I’m in a really enviable position when I’m playing with Fred,” Baker said.
It’s too early to start comparing VanVleet and Baker to the outstanding guard duos in Wichita State history. Let’s let them play a few more games together. But this guard tandem has a chance to be one for the ages.