Ron Baker was a high school senior and high school basketball recruiters weren’t exactly blazing a trail to Scott City.
He was regarded as a good player, sure. But a difference maker?
Baker had heard a lot of “let me get back to you” at that point and he had made a decision. He was going to end the recruiting process, what there was of it, and sign with just-up-the-road Fort Hays State and play some NCAA Division II ball.
Nothing wrong with that. He could have done a lot worse.
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“I was pretty close to signing with them until one of my assistant coaches in high school talked me into waiting because Fort Hays was always going to be there,” Baker said. “Was it a good decision? Yeah, you could say that. It kind of worked out.”
Baker is now a college basketball star at Wichita State, which completed a 31-0 regular season Saturday afternoon at Koch Arena with a 68-45 win over Missouri State.
In three seasons with the Shockers, the first of which was as a redshirt walk-on, Baker has been a part of two Missouri Valley Conference championship teams, played in a Final Four and been a huge part of 31-0.
He can’t go anywhere in Wichita without being deluged by adoring fans, and when he goes home to Scott City the town lights up.
The most amazing thing about Baker and his teammates, though, might be that they’re not all that caught up in being unbeaten, or being the toast of whatever town they’re in, or signing autographs or being the Biggest Men On Campus.
They’re already preparing for the next game, to be played Friday in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament in St. Louis. That, folks, is the Shockers’ last unconquered land and they’re determined to finally cut down the nets at the Scottrade Center.
So while they basked in the glory of senior day, bathed in the sunshine of the best regular season any team has had in college basketball and soaked up the praise of a fan base gone gaga, they’re determined to get back to business.
“I pinch myself a little bit about this,” said sophomore Fred VanVleet, Baker’s backcourt mate. “But I think I’ll do more of that in May. We’re still in the middle of everything. We have more practices next week, more film. And we have some more games in St. Louis.”
As the Shockers piled up one win after another, they didn’t succumb to a growing tidal wave of intrigue and skepticism. They kept their heads down.
“A special ride,” senior Nick Wiggins said. “But obviously this ride is not over. It’s just an amazing feeling, an amazing feeling in my heart. We never took any team we played this year for granted. We always had our minds on playing one game at a time. When we got to 22-0, we pushed to get to 23-0. When we got to 24, we wanted 25. I think that’s why we’ve been such a successful team.”
The Shockers’ Mr. Unbeaten is Evan Wessel, who played on a 25-0 Class 6A championship team for Heights High in 2010-11.
“Winning is a good thing to get used to,” said Wessel, a Wichita State sophomore. “It can’t get much better than that. Now we just want to keep playing the way we’re playing and hopefully extend that.”
There is a train coming down the tracks. Everybody knows it. The NCAA Tournament will be here soon and that’s when Wichita State will face undeniable pressure to live up to their regular-season dominance.
But this isn’t the kind of team that will wilt in that spotlight. Coach Gregg Marshall is the master of providing solid mental ammunition for this team and he’ll have plenty as they likely take on a high NCAA Tournament seed with enough people out there who don’t think the Shockers are worthy. It’ll make for some nice bulletin-board stuff.
Whatever you think of the Shockers, though, 31-0 can’t be denied. Nobody does that in any league against any competition. A season that started in early November zooms full steam ahead into March without a single blemish.
“This feels like a really big accomplishment,” Baker said. “It feels like it’s going to be very, very special to me once this season is over and everything kind of calms down a little bit. Right now I’m just trying to let it soak in and enjoy it.”
Fort Hays State, by the way, is in the midst of a 22-6 season. The Tigers were 20-8 last season, 19-9 the season before that. It’s a very good Division II basketball program.
But Baker was wise in waiting.
“It’s worked out pretty well,” he said.