Bob Lutz

Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet go down fighting

The Wichita State basketball careers of Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet are over now and soon it will feel like they went by in a flash.

“It hasn’t sunk in for me yet,” said VanVleet, the Shockers’ senior point guard. “I just want to go back and watch the film and break it down and get ready for our next team that we’re playing.”

VanVleet, Baker and the rest of the Shockers went down fighting but came up short in Saturday’s South Regional second-round game to Miami. Wichita State fell behind by 21 points early, then relied on their two strongest players to lift them back into the game.

The Shockers took a one-point lead midway through the second half but collapsed under the weight of their comeback and lost 65-57. As Baker and VanVleet sat at the podium for the last time as college players, they pushed back the emotion that was pulsing through them.

“A couple of years ago (in 2013), I told Fred that we would be back in the Final Four,” Baker said. “It was after we lost to Louisville and we were walking down the tunnel. I wasn’t able to keep that promise to him. We weren’t able to get back.”

After a late Sunday flight to Dayton, a game in the First Four on Tuesday, an early-morning Wednesday charter to Providence, a game Thursday night and all of the hubbub and mania that comes with the NCAA Tournament, the Shockers finally crashed into a 27-6 deficit.

The Shockers might have gotten down easily against the Hurricanes, but they weren’t going to go down without a ruckus. Baker and VanVleet spurred an incredible comeback, but it wasn’t enough.

VanVleet, in particular, found his groove after a tough start in which he was outplayed by Miami point guard Angel Rodriguez, who led the Hurricanes with 28 points on 9-of-11 shooting to go with five assists and four steals.

He got the best of VanVleet, who made 4 of 12 shots and had 12 points, five assists and four steals.

“You know what?” Rodriguez said outside the Miami locker room after the game. “I said it before, I’m a fan of (VanVleet’s game). And I told him that personally after the game. That’s something I don’t think I’ve ever said to a player before. But I looked him in the eye and said, ‘Hey, I’m still a fan, man. Good luck.’ 

Baker and VanVleet depart as the Nos. 8 and 15 scorers in Wichita State history. Statistics, though, don’t tell their stories, which are as complex as they are not.

Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall was on the same podium with Baker and VanVleet and he fought to keep cracks from his voice as he spoke about the two most incredible guys and players he’s coached.

“They’ve been unbelievable ambassadors for our program and our university and our city,” Marshall said. “They do everything well, and not just play basketball. They’re just nice young men. They’re class guys and I’m deeply indebted and appreciative of everything that they’ve done for the last five years.”

The Ron and Fred Club has a million members. It feels like they’re adored by young and old and even by crusty reporters like me, who relied on their insights and willingness to talk during good times and bad.

Imagine the emotions they were experiencing Saturday as they attempted to understand why the Shockers lost, examine their parts in the defeat and gain perspective on their incredible careers.

All the while keeping their sense of humor.

“I’m just happy as hell I don’t have to get up on that podium ever again,” Baker said later in a crammed locker room. “That’s the silver lining, I guess.”

VanVleet said he was going to enjoy the night and look back fondly on a personally difficult season that started with a November hamstring injury that took him weeks to heal.

“My emotions have been up and down in the last 30 minutes,” VanVleet said at his locker stall. “I mean, it’s good when I’m by myself. But when other guys start crying and people start telling you how they feel about you, it’s tough. I don’t cry a whole lot, but it’s been a roller coaster.”

It’s interesting to look for the emotions in Baker and VanVleet, but to also realize their lives are so young and, in some ways, just beginning. It’s the fans who are hit hardest by departures like this.

No more Ron and Fred? They’re as intertwined with Shocker basketball as any two players who have ever put on the Wichita State uniform.

Their paths will separate soon, but Wichitans hope they never stop coming back to them.

Both players thanked Shocker fans, especially the ones who went through the ordeal of getting to Dayton and then to Providence. You have to really love something to make that sacrifice and there’s no questioning the adoration so many have for Baker and VanVleet.

“I think we’re good people outside the locker room,” Baker said when asked about why he thinks he and VanVleet have become so popular. “We like the game and we’ve progressed through our years here to become good basketball players by working really hard. I think people who support us like to see the work ethic we put into our craft.”

As well as being consummate athletes, they’ve been great students. VanVleet and Baker are visible on campus and in the community and if you ask them to be in one of your selfies, they’ll accommodate.

Along with fifth-year senior Evan Wessel, VanVleet and Baker have been true leaders of the Shockers. Marshall often talks about how his job is made so much easier by their senior presence and the influence they have on younger players.

Sophomore center Shaq Morris, who has improved considerably this season, credits VanVleet for helping make him understand what it takes to play at the Division I level.

“He’s such a poised and great point guard, the best in college basketball,” Morris said. “With him leaving, we just have to get a lot of other guys to step up.

“More than anything, Fred has been my leader. Even when times got really, really hard, he was always there to push me.”

Leaders like Baker and VanVleet are so hard to find. Not only are they skilled, they’re intelligent. They have gained an understanding of how to play — what works and what doesn’t work.

They are both determined to play in the NBA. And if that doesn’t work, they’ll have the most incredible Plan Bs you’ve ever seen.

Let’s let VanVleet, whose appreciation and love for basketball is intense, have the final word:

“I’m a guy that would rather celebrate all the good stuff we’ve been through than focus on this one game. I’m putting that behind me, trying to keep my spirits up. I’m sure I’ll analyze this game at some point — that’s just my nature as I try to get better. And you can’t get better than being honest with yourself and you can’t be honest with yourself without looking at this game.”

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