An All-American backcourt. Wichita State has never had one All-American guard, let alone two at the same time.
Juniors Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet are together on this journey, from freshmen who seemed to arrive against Gonzaga in the 2013 NCAA Tournament to sophomore stars on a history-making team to their status as preseason All-Americans in 2014-15. VanVleet will play point guard with his customary control of the game and composure. Baker will score and help run the team when VanVleet rests.
While they are different players, their shared attribute of court smarts is their defining characteristic.
“I feel like there’s two of me out there, playing with Fred,” Baker said. “If Fred does something with the ball in his hands, I know where to be.”
VanVleet always determines how fast the game moves and possesses a natural ability to know when to get teammates the ball and when he needs to score. Baker is also a gifted passer and student of the game. Both are excellent defenders who can use physical gifts and cleverness to disrupt the opponent.
“They’re both very, very intelligent players,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “It’s not like they’re of one mind, but they certainly do a great job of finding each other. When one penetrates, the other one makes sure he moves and stays in the vision, so if the help comes he can be the recipient of a nice assist.”
Baker is from Scott City and came to Wichita as a walk-on with the promise of a scholarship after one season. VanVleet is from Rockford, Ill., and came to the Shockers after growing into a coveted recruit during the summer before his senior year. From different backgrounds, they are at home together in the gym.
“Sometimes you’ve got guys that just know how to play,” VanVleet said. “A lot of it is just natural. There are things we do that are not going to be taught.”
Many things changed in the past seven seasons under Marshall and the rise of the star point guard is one of them. In 2010, Clevin Hannah earned All-Missouri Valley Conference honors, becoming perhaps Wichita State’s first pure point honored on the first team since the 1950s. In 2012, Joe Ragland made the All-Missouri Valley team. Last season, VanVleet earned conference Player of the Year honors, as well as third-team All-American from two publications.
Point guard is a limiting term for Marshall, who cranks out multi-dimensional guards such as Toure Murry of the Utah Jazz and Baker, an All-Valley pick last season. Murry played both guard positions at Wichita State and he credits that versatility with helping him attract the NBA’s interest. Baker is on a similar path with his ability to play both spots. As a 6-foot-4 NBA prospect, Baker will need point-guard skills.
It is impossible to discuss Wichita State’s guards without mentioning senior Tekele Cotton, a wing who can be considered the third part of one of the nation’s best backcourts. If you try, VanVleet will correct the omission. He sees himself as the least talented of the trio and it is his job to facilitate their success.
“It’s a collective unit, and we all help each other,” VanVleet said. I’m just there as a guiding voice for those guys. Kind of like a ring man or a corner man that’s in their ear telling them they’re the best in the country.”
Missouri State outlook
Key facts: Coach Paul Lusk; 2013-14 record, 20-13 overall, 9-9 in the Missouri Valley
Star power: G Marcus Marshall, the Missouri Valley Freshman of the Year in 2013, is healthy after missing most of last season because of a knee injury. Marshall averaged 14.3 points in 12 games before tearing the meniscus in his right knee against Wichita State.
On the bright side: The Bears won 20 games despite Marshall’s injury and return six players with starting experience. G Austin Ruder took on a heavier load with Marshall out and averaged 8.6 points and made 40 percent of his three-pointers.
Compelled to mention: The Bears need a major improvement on defense to crack the top of the Valley. They allowed opponents to make 46.6 percent of their shots, worst in the conference.
Come mid-March: Missouri State played in the CIT last season. Making the NIT is a good step. Winning a postseason game or two would represent a significant breakthrough in Lusk’s fourth season.
| Paul Suellentrop, The Wichita Eagle