One of the biggest advantages a team can have in the NCAA Tournament is an experienced backcourt, and Wichita State has the most seasoned set of guards in the field in seniors Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet.
But ahead of the Shockers’ trip to Dayton to face Vanderbilt on Tuesday in a First Four game at UD Arena, coach Greg Marshall had a peculiar message for the duo:
Play like freshmen.
“I was just joking with Ron Baker, and I said can we get that freshman Ron Baker back, because you didn’t care a thing in the world, you just balled out,” Marshall said. “And that’s what we need (Tuesday).”
When Baker and VanVleet were freshmen, they helped lead Wichita State to the Final Four as a No. 9 seed for the second of what has become five consecutive trips to the tournament.
“Coach was just trying to have me as relaxed as possible, to have fun even though it’s the last time,” Baker said.
“As a young kid you don’t really understand the stakes, so you’re just out there playing,” VanVleet added. “I think we need some of that, some of that exuberance and fun and playing like we’ve got nothing to lose.”
VanVleet and Baker have combined to play 259 games for WSU with 217 starts. Ten of those games have been in the NCAA tournament, where Baker has scored 118 points and VanVleet 113, which rank first and second among all active players.
After their run to the Final Four as freshmen, they went 34-0 in the regular season and earned a No. 1 seed, only to fall to No. 9 seed and eventual runner-up Kentucky in the second round.
Last year they entered the dance as a No. 7 seed and stunned in-state rival and second-seeded Kansas before falling to Notre Dame in the Sweet 16. This season they had to sit and wait eight days to see if they would get in after losing to Northern Iowa in the semifinals of the Missouri Valley tournament.
“Ron and Fred, they just sat here and you would have thought they were just a couple of businessmen giving a presentation,” Marshall said after the players left their Monday evening press conference. “They’re so used to it. They’ve been doing it their whole careers. But it’s not something that’s your God-given right. It’s something that you’ve got to earn and you should appreciate it and hopefully we can make it special.”
Their careers have already been something special. In the 109-year history of the MVC, VanVleet and Baker are the first pair of guards from the same team to earn first-team all-league honors three years in a row.
VanVleet is a two-time MVC Player of the Year, winning the award as a sophomore and again this year as a senior, when Baker finished third in the voting. Both also were named to the conference’s all-defensive team, marking the third year in a row for VanVleet and first for Baker.
The two struck up an unlikely friendship even before they played their first game together. Baker, a farm boy from the small, plains town of Scott City, Kan., arrived at WSU a year before VanVleet, who hails from the bigger, rougher town of Rockford, Ill.
“I was actually the guy that hosted him on his visit,” Baker said. “Because we already knew he had committed to coming here, I was more relaxed and he was more relaxed when we first met, so all we had to do was get to know each other and have fun with the visit. Since that day, even just getting to know him for a couple of hours, we knew we could trust one another, and trust can go a long way not only in a friendship, but on a basketball team like this one.”
“It’s one of those relationships that doesn’t need any prodding,” VanVleet added. “This friendship is going to last forever, and 10 or 20 years from now we’re still going to be as close as we are today.”
What won’t last forever, of course, are their careers. After four years, 141 games, 123 wins and numerous individual accolades, Baker and VanVleet are fully aware that tonight could be the last time they ever put on a Wichita State jersey.
“I know it’s coming to an end,” Baker said. “You just have to take it as it is and have fun with the opportunity you’re given.”
“I haven’t thought much about that because I don’t expect it to be our last game,” VanVleet said. “I’m going into it trying to get the win. I know Vanderbilt’s a great team, but we’re not ready to go home.”