Scott City standout takes game from western Kansas to national stage.
By BRETT MARSHALL
It was just two years ago that Ron Baker made what at the time was the biggest basketball shot of his career.
That was the game-winning putback basket with 2.2 seconds remaining, lifting his Scott City Beavers to the Class 3A state championship with a dramatic 55-53 victory over Minneapolis at the Hutchinson Sports Arena before 5,000 fans.
Fast forward 24 months.
It was Salt Lake City, Utah, on Saturday in the third round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, and there is Baker, a 6-3, 215-pound guard, knocking down 3-pointers (4 of them), grabbing rebounds (6 of them, 3 on the offensive glass) and helping the Wichita State Shockers pull one of the major upsets of the 2013 March Madness event with a 76-70 knockdown of No. 1-ranked Gonzaga in front of a raucous crowd of 16,000.
It's been a whirlwind journey for Baker, one of the standout prep athletes of western Kansas in the last decade. Highly decorated, he was a two-time Telegram All-Area basketball selection, the Player of the Year in both football and basketball his senior season while also being honored for his baseball exploits.
But Baker's first love has been basketball, and it was that decision that ultimately paved the road from Scott City to Wichita where he now has suddenly found himself in the spotlight of the national college basketball stage.
"Just another day at the office," Baker joked early Monday evening during a telephone interview with The Telegram. "It's been pretty crazy, but we're just trying to focus as much on the next game (Thursday Sweet 16 vs. La Salle in Los Angeles) and what we need to do to continue our run."
Baker finished that Saturday performance by sharing team-scoring honors with 16 points. His stats line for a guard would catch the watchful eye of any opposing coach — 5-of-7 field goals, 2-of-2 free throws, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal and just 1 turnover in 33 minutes of court time.
"I just remember being on the sideline and our coaches and players getting into each other and telling each other that we needed to push this game out," Baker recalled of the frantic second-half rally when the Shockers came from eight points down. "We got big stops and then I think we had like six straight possessions where we made shots. The crowd was yelling and the bench reaction at the end of the game kinda reminded me of Hutchinson. The difference was 5,000 fans in Hutch and 16,000 in Salt Lake City."
It has been a season of highs, lows and highs again for Baker, who red-shirted his freshman season while a walk-on with the Shockers.
By the beginning of the 2012-13 season, Baker had worked his way into a starting position with the Shockers. In an opening win over North Carolina Central on Nov. 10, he had a game-high 18 points. Over the first nine games, all WSU wins, Baker was averaging just under 8 points per game. It was in the 10th game of the season, a 69-60 loss at Tennessee, where a developing foot injury proved too serious and eventually sidelined Baker for 21 games.
The injury, a navicular bone stress fracture in his left foot, was something Baker said must have developed over a period of time and simply worsened as he practiced and played on it.
"I really don't remember anything specific that caused it," Baker said. "Just the wear and tear over time probably caused it."
With a watchful eye by WSU physicians and athletic trainers, Baker was sidelined from mid-December through the entire regular season. His much-anticipated return came on March 8 in the quarterfinals of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in St. Louis.
In that game against Missouri State, Baker returned with a fury, scoring 15 points, grabbing 2 rebounds and handing out 2 assists in just 19 minutes. He followed that up with two consecutive games of scoring 7 points each as the Shockers fell to Creighton in the title game. The Shockers, who finished the regular season with a 26-8 record, then earned a No. 9 seed in the West region for the NCAA's.
In WSU's opening 73-55 romp over Pitt, Baker scored 6 points, all from the free throw line, while grabbing 2 rebounds, handing out 3 assists and making 1 steal. That set the stage for the dramatic win over Gonzaga on Saturday.
"I'm pretty pleased with how I've been able to come back," Baker said of his recovery. "I had a great group of medical people, and the coaches who worked to make sure I was healthy before returning."
During his absence, as well as several other Shockers who have missed games, WSU went 15-6 and since his return have gone 4-1 and now find themselves in the elite group of 16 teams remaining in the 2013 tournament.
"Tournament seeds really don't mean anything to most of us," Baker said. "In big-time games, it's who makes the plays at the key times. I like how we're playing team defense. We like to get out and run in transition. If we play our inside-outside game and shoot like we did against Gonzaga, then I think it gives a chance to do even more big things."
Becoming a Shocker
One week before the 2011 Class 3A state basketball tournament, Baker had only been recruited by Division I schools South Dakota State and Arkansas-Little Rock, Division II Fort Hays State University and Coffeyville Community College, one of the elite junior college programs in the country.
Baker had been hopeful of playing closer to home, thus allowing his coaching parents (Neil and Ranae) to attend many of his college games.
So when WSU associate head coach Chris Jans first called Baker prior to the Beavers heading to the state tourney, it was the beginning of a short, intense recruiting effort.
"Coach Jans described their situation since they were out of scholarships and they wanted me to come and walk-on, pay my way my freshman year and then they would have a scholarship for me for the start of 2012-13," Baker said of the initial effort by the Shockers. "The week after state, coach (Greg) Marshall started talking to me and I really liked what he had to say."
Baker eventually announced his decision in late April of 2011, saying that he wanted to play for the program that he considered to be on the rise. The Shockers had just come off winning the National Invitation Tournament in New York City. During his red-shirt freshman season, Baker worked on his strength and conditioning, which resulted in him increasing his weight from 197 to 215 pounds.
"Having an entire season to learn from the senior guards was great for me," Baker said. "I learned so much and I've gotten stronger and quicker and that has stayed with me even though I'm heavier. It gives me more confidence against the bigger schools, the bigger guards. I'd have a 2-hour workout and then be dead the rest of the day. At the end of last year, I began to work back more into the basketball part, being part of the scout team. I just felt like when this year came around, I was ready to go."
Scott City roots
Baker said he had a high regard what Scott City boys basketball coach Glenn O'Neil had taught him through his prep career.
"He really taught me how to be a better basketball player — shooting, passing, defending, being a good teammate, and how to act in the general public," Baker said. "He taught me the I.Q. of the game and how to do the little things. He's the guy that taught me a lot that got me where I am today. But I'm certainly not the Ron Baker I was in Scott City. I'm more of a role player here."
And his hopes of being able to have his parents watch his game has become a reality. They have attended every non-conference home game but two, drove to Colorado Springs for the Air Force game, traveled to St. Louis for the MVC tourney and then made the trek west to Salt Lake City.
"Guess I'll have to get them a new van sometime," Baker joked. "It's made my decision to play closer to home all the better."
Ron Baker Day
The city of Scott City has plans to honor Baker.
At 10 a.m. Thursday, in front of the Scott City High School, Mayor Dan Goodman will read a proclamation declaring it Ron Baker Day.
There will be t-shirts availabe that has a Beaver and Shocker logo on the front along with a picture of Baker. On the back will be words, "A Humble Kid."
A victory by the Shockers on Thursday would put them into the Elite Eight on Saturday against the winner of the Arizona-Ohio State game. That day is when Ron Baker will turn 20 years old.