College basketball celebrity can come in many forms. There's inclusion on the Wooden Watch list. There is the often fleeting fame born of NCAA heroics. There is, of course, the Sports Illustrated cover, which two of this year's freshmen, Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins, scored before they had lined up for their first college tip. Then there is the singular, sartorial notoriety enjoyed by Ron Baker of Scott City, Kansas.
Baker, a 6-foot-3, 213-pound redshirt sophomore guard at Wichita State who is the leading scorer for the undefeated, 12th-ranked Shockers, is the subject of no less than three hot-selling T-shirts. The first, part of a series of gold and black shirts created last season by the Wichita State marketing department to celebrate the grown-out locks of Shockers Carl Hall, Evan Wessel and Baker, featured a silhouette of Baker's curly blond tresses and the caption, "Can't Tame the Mane." The second was produced by PlainJan's, a screen-printing, house-renting and weed-killing service in Baker's hometown of Scott City (population: 4,000) to promote Ron Baker Day, which the town hosted after Baker helped the nine-seed Shockers knock off top seed Gonzaga to reach the Sweet 16. That shirt, in yellow, has a picture of Baker on the front and "Just Bake It" on the back. A second PlainJan shirt, whipped up when the Shockers made the Final Four, is black and reads on the front, "A Shocker, a Baker, a Final Four Maker."
While the humble and laid-back Baker says he found Ron Baker Day, held last March 28, "overwhelming," he finds the T-shirts, which his mom, Ranae, estimates number in the thousands, funny. On Shocker game days he gets text messages and snapchat pictures from friends at Kansas, Kansas State and other state campuses wearing their Ron Baker shirts. "They get heckled about it every now and then," says Baker, "but I don't think they care."
Clearly, his friends have an eye for a brand on the move. In just his second year, Baker has emerged as one of the most versatile players in the country, a combo guard who plays all three perimeter positions (he also played the four in last year's NCAA tournament) and can easily move from one to the other despite the complexity of the Shockers' offensive sets. He's grabbing 4.6 rebounds and scoring 15.3 points while shooting 40 percent from the three, 87 percent from the foul line and 64 percent from inside the arc. "That means he's taking it to the basket and he's making midrange shots, so we're talking about skill level and toughness and athleticism," says ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla. "When you add them all up, you got yourself a pretty darn good college sophomore on a top 15 team."
But it's the uncountable elements of Baker's game that make him "the poster child for the way Wichita State plays," says Fraschilla. "You can't quantify his ability to stick his nose in for rebounds, dive on the floor for loose balls, set hard screens, take charges. You just feel it, you sense it, and you see it on tape. He's never going to get credit on a box score for a screen, but that screen got Nick Wiggins open. So those little things add up quickly from a coach's standpoint. And Ron is improving because he practices every day with coach Gregg Marshall, who won't settle for anything other than your absolute best."
Baker, a three-sport star at Scott City High, is used to demanding coaches. Both Ranae, and his dad, Neil, are small-college-athletes-turned-coaches who hated nothing more than "seeing our kids loaf," says Neil. Watching them build bad habits was just as intolerable.
Baker recalls one game playing on Ranae's rec team as a third grader, when he ran down the left side of the court for a layup but dribbled and shot the ball with his right hand. "She subbed me out for that," he says.
Neil, who coached Ron in middle school basketball, emphasized rebounding, but took pains to teach the fundamentals behind it, like boxing out and reading the rim. He was even more exacting when he coached Ron in high school baseball. "I expected him to make all the plays. I expected him never to strike out," Neil confesses. "My assistant coach thought I was too hard on him. Did I set a high bar for him? Yeah, I did."
As a kid, Baker's dream destination was the Kansas basketball team, and his favorite player was Kirk Hinrich, a star Jayhawks guard who now plays for the Chicago Bulls. But as he neared the end of high school with just two D-I offers, from Arkansas-Little Rock and South Dakota State, "I started to realize KU and K-State were probably out of the picture," he says.
The Wichita State staff had seen Baker at an Elite Camp on their campus in the summer before his senior year and liked his game. But Marshall had no scholarships to offer, so he didn't recruit Baker. As Baker's senior season wound down and his team headed to the 3A state tournament in Hutchinson, Brian Miller, Baker's AAU coach, implored Shocker associate head coach Chris Jans to take another look. Because Hutchinson was just an hour from Wichita, Jans obliged.
After the first quarter, Jans started looking around to make sure he was the only DI coach in the building. Baker's body had filled out since the previous summer. His hands were huge, and as always, he could shoot and rebound. But it was his instinctive way of moving that caught the coach's eye. "His understanding of the game was far beyond most kids at the same stage of their career," says Jans. "And he had built all these instincts and presence without playing against great competition."
On the drive home, Jans called Marshall: You have to see this kid in the title game tomorrow night. But Marshall had plans to be at Wichita State's Koch Arena watching signee Evan Wessell and recruit (and eventual Kansas signee) Perry Ellis play in their final game for Wichita Heights in the 6A title game. "You want me to watch this kid from Scott City instead of being here for that?" he asked Jans.
As he sat in Koch Arena the next night and Marshall drove to Hutchinson, Jans nervously willed Baker to have a good game. By halftime, the texts from Marshall started flooding his phone: We have to figure out how to get him in the program. And that was before Baker hit the game winner at the buzzer.
The Shockers still didn't have a scholarship. Neil and Ranae offered to pay Ron's way his first year while he red-shirted. And that's how the future poster boy for Shocker basketball started his career in Wichita -- as a walk-on.
In his first year as a scholarship player, Baker started the first ten games, averaging 7.3 points and 2.6 rebounds, as Marshall tried to find replacements for the five top scorers from the season before. Then Baker sat out for 21 games with a stress fracture in his left foot. When he returned, he was a different player. After shaking off the rust in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, Baker averaged 11 points and 4.8 rebounds and shot nearly 43 percent from the three and 88 percent from the line in five NCAA games. In the upset of Gonzaga, he had 16 points. In the upset of Ohio State in the Elite Eight, he hit all nine of his free throws. In the 72-68 loss to Louisville in the Final Four, he had 11 points and eight rebounds. From sitting out those 21 games, Baker says, "I improved mentally. We put in a ton of new plays during that stretch. I just watched how they were executed, and when the tournament came along, everything just rolled my way."
This year, as the team has worked Chadrack Lufile and Kadeem Coleby into the post, Baker's role has expanded. Did we mention he leads the team in blocks, with 10?
"Ron does a little bit of everything; that's the best part about him," says Jans. "People mistake him for a shooter. He's not a shooter. He's a player. Baseball players talk about having five tools, he's the same way. He can shoot it, he can bounce it, he can rebound it -- he is as good a defender as we have. He really has his hands in every facet of the game."
The Shockers' nine wins include victories over BYU and Saint Louis away from Wichita. On Saturday, they'll get their biggest home test to date when Tennessee, a 6-2 team in desperate need of a signature win, comes to 15,000-seat Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita. (2ET, ESPN2). It's a rematch of last year's game in Knoxville, a 69-60 loss that halted the Shockers' win streak at nine. A win on Saturday would give the Shockers their first ever 10-0 start.
"This game is pretty big for us," says Baker. "It's hard to get a power conference school to come into town and play us. I think its good were going downtown for this one. Extra seating and a lot of fans that can't get into Koch on a regular basis can come down and watch us. It'll be good for the community."
And if Baker keeps doing a little bit of everything, it could be good for T-shirt sales, too.