Ron Baker slogged back to the Wichita State locker room Friday at CenturyLink Center, an ice bag wrapped around his right calf. As he limped along, his left hand alternated between massaging his left hamstring and propping himself up against a wall.
Across the room was teammate Darius Carter, just happy it turned out his tooth only had been smacked into the back of his mouth instead of out altogether.
“When they pushed my tooth back in place,” he said, “I let out a big scream and I felt a release.”
But this was just collateral damage for the seventh-seeded Shockers, who stiff-armed No. 10 seed Indiana in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional to make good on the enticing prospect of playing No. 2 seed Kansas here on Sunday.
Earlier Friday, the Jayhawks beat 15th-seeded New Mexico State 75-56.
“Obviously, when people saw the bracket, they were already talking about this day on Sunday,” said Baker, a native of Scott City, Kan., who long had wanted to go to KU but was a late bloomer who never got a scholarship offer there. “A lot of excitement, a lot of houses are going to be divided. …
“Being from Kansas, (I’m) just really, really fortunate to be in this game. Obviously, these type of games don’t happen a whole lot.”
In this case, not since 1993 — and not in NCAA play since 1981.
The rarity, of course, is part of what makes this so appealing.
Especially at a time when both programs are thriving, and when the perception is that Wichita State has been begging KU to play and that KU refuses.
It’s not quite like that, really.
“Never called them,” said Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, who did allow that he once casually mentioned the idea to KU coach Bill Self. “They know we want to play. It’s not something I want to bother them with. …
“It’s not something we’ve stressed about.”
Plenty of room for that now on both ends. Which is why Marshall’s first task upon it being at hand seemed to be to reel it all in.
It’s fine if fans and others want to go berserk about this, he suggested, but it won’t do his team any good to overthink it in the roughly 48 hours they have to prepare.
“It’s not going to cure cancer; it’s not going to end world hunger,” he said. “It’s just a basketball game that people have a lot of interest in in our region.
“And now they get to see it.”
Still, part of the psychological scheme here for Marshall is to keep the narrative as the blue-collar guys taking on yet another blue-blood.
Last season ended with the crushing 78-76 loss to Kentucky in the round of 32. Then came Indiana. And now Kansas.
“I mean, I guess we could play the Lakers and Celtics after that, but it’s amazing the lineup that we get to go to,” he said, later adding, “We’re not the ‘blue-blood,’ so to speak.”
Maybe not in terms of star-studded recruiting classes or traditions that bestride the game.
But the funny thing is this:
No current KU player has played on a Final Four team, while Baker and guard Fred VanVleet did for Wichita State in 2013.
And the last two-plus seasons, the Shockers are 6-2 in NCAA play, the Jayhawks 3-2.
That doesn’t trump KU’s storied history in any sense, but this is about the moment.
For Wichita State to maximize this window of opportunity, the Shockers are best-served to stay hungry and play angry — as their motto went two seasons back.
Some combination of those traits makes this team, this program, what it is: built foremost on mental toughness.
In a big-picture sense in the context of the game against KU, that’s perhaps best embodied in Baker, who on Friday shrugged off a rough shooting day (three of 13 from the field) to make a pivotal seven of eight free throws in the last 2 minutes.
But the evidence of that trademark is all over the court, too, and no one stood for it more on Friday than VanVleet.
When last we saw him in the NCAA Tournament, it was his excruciating misfire at the end of the Kentucky loss.
A year later, no one refused to lose to Indiana with more ferocity than the whirling VanVleet, who had 27 points and four assists.
“He did an excellent job,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said, “of controlling the game.”
That was a key part of the poise the Shockers showed on a day they committed just seven turnovers to Indiana’s 13 (including nine Wichita State steals) and made 29 of 34 free throws.
Then there’s the sheer grit and physicality that enabled Wichita State to outrebound Indiana 39-37 … and seem to get stronger the more it got thumped around.
A case in point was Carter’s energized return after getting popped in the mouth.
“It seems that he plays better,” Marshall said, “when something like that happens.”
That’s become the Shocker way, and limping or bloody or playing from behind, it’s the essence of what they’ll bring to this matchup so long in the making.