Wichita State basketball fans received great news Monday when Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet announced they’ll return to the Shockers in 2015-16 for their 41st season of college basketball.
Baker and VanVleet, commonly referred to Methuselah and Noah, are cornerstones of Wichita State’s incredible success over the past several seasons. They helped build some of the corner stones at Koch Arena.
Baker and VanVleet could have chosen to gone to the NBA, but they’re too old.
Or so it must seem to every other Missouri Valley Conference coach, player, fan, media member and public-address announcer, who has been piping the names of Baker and VanVleet over the public-address systems in their arenas for what seems like decades.
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WSU fans, meanwhile, would love to hold on to these guys forever. They’ve already been a part of a WSU team that went to only the second Final Four in the program’s history, another that started a season 35-0 before losing to Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament, and a third that advanced to the Sweet 16 by beating Kansas, the team that won’t have anything to do with the Shockers unless forced.
It’s been a crazy ride and it’s obvious neither player is ready to get off this horse.
They love the chase and the only thing they haven’t caught is an appearance in the national championship game. And if Baker and VanVleet can lead the Shockers that far, heck, they might as well go ahead and win the thing.
Which brings us to these questions: Are the Shockers poised to be a preseason top-10 team? Can they legitimately make a run at a national title?
The answer to both is yes, but with a caveat – Wichita State needs help up front.
Baker and VanVleet are two of the best backcourt players in the country. They’ll be joined next season by Kansas transfer Conner Frankamp, who becomes eligible on Dec. 12, and by freshmen recruits Landry Shamet and Tyrone Taylor.
The Shockers also are covered on the wing with returning senior Evan Wessel, sophomores-to-be Rashard Kelly and Zach Brown, and incoming freshman Markis McDuffie.
It’s on the front line that the Shockers need help, with only Shaq Morris and Bush Wamukota returning with much experience. Morris has to prove he can play without fouling and Wamukota’s offensive limitations probably make him more of a role player than someone who WSU coach Gregg Marshall can depend on for 20-25 minutes. Sunrise Christian’s Eric Hamilton (6-8, 200) will also join the Shockers.
Rauno Nurger, who will be a sophomore next season, is 6-foot-10 with some enticing skills. But he was not strong enough this season to take on the pounding that goes with being an inside force.
So WSU will probably need to find a 6-8 or 6-9 juco player or fifth-year transfer to take on some significant minutes. If I know this and you know this, you can bet Marshall and his staff know this.
Imagine a Shocker team with Baker, VanVleet and Frankamp on the floor together? How do opposing teams guard those three?
Imagine Kelly and Brown improving enough to become significant producers?
Imagine Shamet and McDuffie, in particular, making real contributions as freshmen?
Dreamy stuff, isn’t it?
But Wichita State is going to need to add some muscle. Morris has incredible potential, sometimes realized, but where’s the finesse? If he does all the right things this spring and summer, there’s no reason Morris couldn’t be a dominant big man in the Valley. He weighs 260 pounds. He’s a mountain. It’s time for Morris to become what he can be and to stay on the floor long enough to show everyone what that looks like.
A combination of Morris, Wamukota and Nurger could work. But it doesn’t leave much room for error, which is why I expect Marshall to find a frontcourt addition somewhere.
When that happens, look out.
Baker and VanVleet are primed for great senior seasons – both as Shockers and in the shuffleboard league they belong to down at the center.
I always thought VanVleet would return, but Baker’s decision was a mild surprise. He’ll be entering his fifth year at Wichita State – not his 50th – and it would have made sense for him to throw his hat into the NBA Draft ring and see where he got picked. Most of the experts had him going in the second round, but a few of the mock drafts I saw had Baker being overlooked.
VanVleet probably would have had to navigate even more unsure waters had he decided to become a professional.
Instead, both are still Shockers. Still and forever Shockers, it must seem to so many.