Apr 5, 2013, 2:00 PM EDT
ATLANTA — Sitting on a chair in his locker in the far corner of Wichita State’s locker room, Ron Baker must have been thankful that he wasn’t claustrophobic. He was surrounded by reporters — print, TV, internet — from across the country, blockaded by a swarm of video cameras, bright lights, recorders and iPhones that were shoved in his face for 25 minutes. Baker was peppered with questions, the topics ranging everywhere from playing against Russ Smith to his hometown in Kansas to … what the Easter holiday means for someone of Catholic faith.
He was asked what Easter means to him.
At the Final Four.
And Baker handled it all like a pro, calmly, intelligently and succinctly answering every question he was asked, mixing in enough small-town, Midwestern charm to win over reporters and blind them to the fact that the majority of what he said was typical press conference generality. If you didn’t know any better, you never would have guessed that Baker was a redshirt freshmen at a school that didn’t win a league title in the Missouri Valley who opted to walk-on for a year instead of go to Junior College or accept a Division II scholarship.
“My AAU coach was at Coffeyville [CC in Kansas] at the time, and that was my second option if Wichita State didn’t give me the opportunity to pay my first year,” Baker said.
“It’s definitely overwhelming. If I looked back two years ago and you told me I’d be sitting here, I’d probably call you crazy. It’s been a good trip for me and my family and everybody back home. They’re extremely excited.”
And why shouldn’t they be? Towns like Scott City, KS, population 3,800, don’t often send players to the Final Four. But it’s those small-town roots that make Baker’s path to this stage all the more impressive. His high school graduating class was 55 kids. Scott City has two stop lights. The reason he wasn’t recruited by bigger schools? They didn’t know about him. So imagine where he would be if his family had never moved to Scott City from Utica, KS.
“It’s about 50 miles northeast of Scott City,” Baker said. “Population about 280 people.”
The best part about this Wichita State team is that Baker may not even have the best story.
Carl Hall, their 24 year old starting power forward, suffers from a heart condition known as neurocardiogenic syncope. He’s passed out three times on the court, and that forced him away from the game. Instead of chasing his dream, Hall was working the graveyard shift, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., at a lighting company. He painted light-bulbs for 12 bucks-an-hour before going to school during the day and, finally, taking a nap at night before heading back to the factory.
“I wouldn’t recommend that job to anybody,” Hall said. “It was just a hot, nasty job. I tell them every day to stay in school and do they work.”
That lasted for two years. Finally, doctors told Hall that his medication had started to work and he would be able to resume playing the game he loved. He wound up at Wichita State after going to a JuCo, but it was still difficult for him to resume. On the one hand, he had to learn to trust his heart again. “Once you pass out you,” Hall told reporters in LA, “you don’t want to go through that situation again.” That made it difficult for him to get in shape, and Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall found it difficult to push Hall.
That’s understandable. He once watched a kid he was recruiting die on the court during a game due to a heart condition. When you see that happen once, it makes it a lot harder to convince yourself it’s worthwhile to push a kid beyond his limit.
But Hall persevered, averaging 22.3 minutes as a sixth-man as a junior and more than 28 minutes per game asa senior.
“I remember like yesterday telling one of the workers that I wanted to start playing basketball, try to pursue my dream, try to play in March Madness one day,” Hall said.
Hall’s here, and if that wasn’t enough, he’ll be playing a car ride from his hometown of Cochran, GA. “I grew up an hour and a half from here,” he said, “and I’ve never been to the Dome.”
It’s the stories of guys like Hall and Baker that make the Shockers so likeable. Wichita State — a No. 9 seed, a team that couldn’t win a title this season in the Missouri Valley, a team with losses to Indiana State and Southern Illinois and got swept by Evansville — wasn’t supposed to beat Gonzaga and Ohio State and make it to Atlanta. Ron Baker and Carl Hall aren’t supposed to be recognizable names. They’re not supposed to be giving interview after interview to the biggest media outlets in the country.
And those two are not alone.
Malcolm Armstead has played at three different colleges during his career. After leaving Oregon as a junior, he redshirted and worked at a car dealership part-time to pay his tuition. “Sometimes I had to leave practice to go to work to be able to make money,” Armstead said. Cleanthony Early played at Division III Sullivan Community College before heading to Wichita. Ehimen Orukpe is from Lagos, Nigeria, by way of Three Rivers Community College. Kadeem Coleby is a transfer from Louisiana-Lafayette that is from the Bahamas. Chadrack Lufile and Nick Wiggins are from Canada, and Wiggins making the Final Four isn’t even the biggest story in his family. He’s the older brother of the nation’s No. 1 prospect, Andrew Wiggins.
The Shockers embody the underdog story, Marshall’s Merry Band of Misfits. And somehow, despite having a locker room full of pieces that didn’t fit somewhere else, the Shockers have made it work.
“A lot of people probably think I wouldn’t fit in with these guys,” Baker said with a laugh. “There’s a bunch of crazy men on this team.”
The craziest part is that they are now someplace no one ever thought they would be: 24 hours away from playing in the Final Four.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.
Aug 3, 2015, 10:00 PM EDT
A cool documentary-style approach to the Under Armour Association in preparation for the Elite 24.
Aug 3, 2015, 8:30 PM EDT
Nebraska is hoping a four-game trip in Spain helps with their freshmen.
Aug 3, 2015, 7:00 PM EDT
Baylor is losing a reserve forward to transfer.
Aug 3, 2015, 4:50 PM EDT
Mamadi Diakite, a four-star forward, could decide between three schools soon, per a report.
Aug 3, 2015, 4:50 PM EDT
There are two glaring weaknesses to Kris Dunn’s game. Here’s how he’s gone about trying to fix them this summer.
Aug 3, 2015, 2:40 PM EDT
Tony Carr is a four-star point guard that picked Penn State over Maryland, SMU and Providence.
Aug 3, 2015, 12:29 PM EDT
The investigation was conducted by an outside law firm and paid for by the university.
Aug 3, 2015, 12:05 PM EDT
Alkins might be the best player from New York City since Lance Stephenson.
Aug 3, 2015, 9:20 AM EDT
The schedule isn’t the best you’ll see this season, but it’s pretty solid nonetheless.
Aug 2, 2015, 9:45 PM EDT
St. John’s remains under consideration for the Brooklyn native.
Aug 2, 2015, 6:37 PM EDT
He’s the younger brother of five-star 2017 forward Michael Porter Jr., and Michael Sr. considered joining the Washington staff this spring.
Aug 2, 2015, 5:10 PM EDT
With Vince Hunter in the professional ranks and Matt Willms dealing with a foot issue, this is an important pickup for the Miners.
Aug 2, 2015, 4:00 PM EDT
Markelle Fultz will take two official visits once he leaves adidas Nations.
Aug 2, 2015, 2:45 PM EDT
Wenyen Gabriel’s tremendous summer only got better with this off-handed throw down on a defender.
Aug 2, 2015, 1:45 PM EDT
Xavier added another piece in the 2016 class with a guard commitment.
Aug 2, 2015, 12:33 PM EDT
N.C. State added a dynamic wing scorer late in their 2015 recruiting efforts on Sunday as reclassified 6-foot-7 wing Maverick Rowan committed to the Wolfpack. A three-level scorer, Rowan was previously committed to Pitt and later backed off of his pledge to the Panthers before deciding to move up a grade by taking two summer…
Aug 2, 2015, 11:45 AM EDT
Texas A&M finished off a tremendous 2015 recruiting class with one more combo guard.
Aug 2, 2015, 10:15 AM EDT
After a rough July that included suspensions and a recruit heading to prep school, Arkansas received some good news on the first day of August.
Aug 2, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT
Brandon Childress, son of Wake Forest great Randolph Childress, was the first commit in the class for the Demon Deacons.
Aug 1, 2015, 10:01 PM EDT
The lawsuit stemmed from the incident in the spring of 2014.
- Fixing his flaws: How Kris Dunn has attacked the two weaknesses in his game 0
- Five-star shooting guard focusing on ten schools 0
- Isaac Humphries is Kentucky’s insurance policy inside, but should that be concerning? 2
- Source: Isaac Humphries expected to commit to Kentucky, enroll in 2015 1
- Steady improvement turning Alize Johnson into valued Division I prospect 0
- Report: SMU’s Larry Brown up against ‘lack of coach control’ charge 1
- If the NCAA is correct, Donnie Tyndall is in big, big trouble 2
- Bruce Pearl on his time at Tennessee: ‘I ran a clean program’ (3)
- Another Division I coach loses their job in the wake of the Donnie Tyndall scandal (3)
- If the NCAA is correct, Donnie Tyndall is in big, big trouble (2)
- Marquette coaches discuss daily ‘noon ball’ tradition (VIDEO) (2)
- Isaac Humphries is Kentucky’s insurance policy inside, but should that be concerning? (2)