An All-American backcourt. Wichita State has never had one All-American guard, let alone two at the same time.
Juniors Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet are together on this journey, from freshmen who seemed to arrive against Gonzaga in the 2013 NCAA Tournament to sophomore stars on a history-making team to their status as preseason All-Americans in 2014-15. VanVleet will play point guard with his customary control of the game and composure. Baker will score and help run the team when VanVleet rests.
While they are different players, their shared attribute of court smarts is their defining characteristic.
“I feel like there’s two of me out there, playing with Fred,” Baker said. “If Fred does something with the ball in his hands, I know where to be.”
VanVleet always determines how fast the game moves and possesses a natural ability to know when to get teammates the ball and when he needs to score. Baker is also a gifted passer and student of the game. Both are excellent defenders who can use physical gifts and cleverness to disrupt the opponent.
“They’re both very, very intelligent players,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “It’s not like they’re of one mind, but they certainly do a great job of finding each other. When one penetrates, the other one makes sure he moves and stays in the vision, so if the help comes he can be the recipient of a nice assist.”
Baker is from Scott City and came to WSU as a walk-on with the promise of a scholarship after one season. VanVleet is from Rockford, Ill., and came to WSU after growing into a coveted recruit during the summer before his senior year. From different backgrounds, they are at home together in the gym.
“Sometimes you’ve got guys that just know how to play,” VanVleet said. “A lot of it is just natural. There are things we do that are not going to be taught.”
Many things changed in the past seven seasons under Marshall and the rise of the star point guard is one of them. In 2010, Clevin Hannah earned All-Missouri Valley Conference honors, becoming perhaps WSU’s first pure point honored on the first team since the 1950s. In 2012, Joe Ragland made All-MVC. Last season, VanVleet earned MVC Player of the Year honors, as well as third-team All-American from two publications.
Point guard is a limiting term for Marshall, who cranks out multi-dimensional guards such as Toure Murry of the Utah Jazz and Baker, an All-MVC pick last season. Murry played both guard positions at WSU and he credits that versatility with helping him attract the NBA’s interest. Baker is on a similar path with his ability to play both spots. As a 6-foot-4 NBA prospect, Baker will need point-guard skills.
It is impossible to discuss WSU’s guards without mentioning senior Tekele Cotton, a wing who can be considered the third part of one of the nation’s best backcourts. If you try, VanVleet will correct the omission. He sees himself as the least talented of the trio and it is his job to facilitate their success.
“It’s a collective unit, and we all help each other,” VanVleet said. I’m just there as a guiding voice for those guys. Kind of like a ring man or a corner man that’s in their ear telling them they’re the best in the country.”
Up front with MVC backcourts
A list of the top backcourts in the MVC, by school during their time as an MVC member (excluding one-season member Loyola).
MVC Player of the Year Jim Les and All-MVC pick Hersey Hawkins led the Braves to a 32-3 record and the MVC title at 16-0 in 1985-86. Hawkins followed Les as MVC Player of the Year in 1987 and 1988.
All-American Willie McCarter and Don Draper teamed in 1968-69 on Drake’s MVC champion and Final Four team. McCarter averaged 20.4 points for the Bulldogs, who lost to UCLA in the national semifinal and defeated North Carolina for third place.
1999 MVC Player of the Year Marcus Wilson and All-Defense team member Jeremy Stanton, Evansville’s career assists leader, led the Aces to the MVC title and the NCAA Tournament.
Rickie Johnson averaged 14 points and Michael McKenny led the Redbirds with an average of 4.4 assists for the 1983-84 MVC champions.
All-MVC selection Carl Nicks averaged 19.3 points and Steve Reed averaged 7 assists for the Sycamores, who won the MVC and played in the 1979 Final Four.
Kevin Ault and William Fontleroy started for four seasons and led the Bears to the 1999 Sweet 16.
The Panthers advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2009-10 with All-Defense team member Kwadzo Ahelegbe at point guard and sweet-shooting Ali Farokhmanesh at shooting guard.
All-MVC selection Jamaal Tatum, Tony Young and Bryan Mullins terrorized teams with their physical defense in 2006-07, when the Salukis won the MVC and advanced to the Sweet 16. Young and Mullins earned All-Defense team honors.
Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker are already the most-decorated backcourt tandem in the program’s history, and they’re juniors.