Apr 5, 2013, 2:00 PM EST
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.
Feb 28, 2015, 9:27 PM EST
All the bubble winners and losers from Saturday’s college hoops action.
Feb 28, 2015, 7:42 PM EST
With the loss Texas drops to 1-11 in games against teams in the RPI Top 50.
Feb 28, 2015, 7:35 PM EST
No. 1 Kentucky moved to 29-0, and No. 6 Villanova came back to win at Xavier.
Feb 28, 2015, 7:03 PM EST
The Cyclones lost at home against Baylor and then lost at Kansas State.
Feb 28, 2015, 7:01 PM EST
Kentucky has now won 46 SEC titles, and this group looks poised to add more hardware to the trophy case before the season concludes.
Feb 28, 2015, 5:13 PM EST
Having just seven scholarship players hasn’t kept the Flyers from playing a major role in the Atlantic 10 race.
Feb 28, 2015, 4:48 PM EST
The Shockers are once again champions of the Valley.
Feb 28, 2015, 3:45 PM EST
Kansas will be without Cliff Alexander against Texas on Saturday.
Feb 28, 2015, 1:55 PM EST
Jake Layman didn’t want to get dunked on.
Feb 28, 2015, 12:21 PM EST
Robbie Berwick is not going to like seeing this highlight.
Feb 28, 2015, 11:15 AM EST
Auburn will be without second-leading scorer Antoine Mason as he deals with the death of his father.
Feb 28, 2015, 10:00 AM EST
Marist’s Khallid Hart made the game-winning layup with 1.5 seconds left for the win.
Feb 28, 2015, 9:00 AM EST
A huge Saturday with 150 games and a lot of bubble action.
Feb 28, 2015, 12:17 AM EST
Here’s the rundown from Friday night.
Feb 27, 2015, 10:20 PM EST
An off-campus altercation back in 2010 led to a year-long suspension for the Villanova forward.
Feb 27, 2015, 9:15 PM EST
Jim Boeheim goes back almost nine years to describe Rakeem Christmas’ importance to this year’s team.
Feb 27, 2015, 7:20 PM EST
The starting guard has missed the last 11 games.
Feb 27, 2015, 6:00 PM EST
This isn’t the first time he’s done this in a game.
Feb 27, 2015, 4:45 PM EST
The Vandy coach was quick to apology following last night’s incident.
Feb 27, 2015, 4:25 PM EST
Derrick Walton Jr. hasn’t played in just over a month, but he’s still bothered by an issue with his right foot.
- Bubble Banter: St. John’s, Dayton win the day; Texas, N.C. State lose; and Kansas State? 1
- Saturday’s Snacks: No. 11 Wichita State, No. 19 Baylor among winners in games matching ranked teams 1
- No. 1 Kentucky moves to 29-0 with blowout win over No. 18 Arkansas 0
- No. 11 Wichita State wins the Missouri Valley by knocking off No. 10 Northern Iowa 0
- NCAA tournament berth the final step for St. John’s senior class 0
- Bracketology: Kentucky reigns and March arrives 5
- Weekend Preview: Saturday will be the season’s best day of games 1
- Report: Former Louisville guard Chris Jones charged with rape, sodomy (12)
- Roy Williams calls out North Carolina fans following win over Georgia Tech (11)
- Bill Self crushed, Jamari Traylor targeted during Kansas State court storm (VIDEO) (11)
- Dez Wells, Melo Trimble lead No. 14 Maryland to upset of No. 5 Wisconsin (9)
- Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings apologizes for postgame outburst directed at freshman guard Wade Baldwin IV (9)