PROVIDENCE, R.I. — From here on out, as it’s been for a couple of years now, college basketball fans won’t be able to say one of their names without thinking of the other’s.
Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet. Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker.
They were, are and always will be synonymous with Wichita State — and with each other. Their magnificent, memorable careers ended on Saturday afternoon here at the hands of Jim Larranaga’s third-seeded Miami Hurricanes. Fittingly, Fred, Ron and the Shockers gave us one more dramatic game before saying goodbye.
I mean, those guys going away quietly? No chance.
Wichita State fell behind 27-6, but tugged and twisted its way back into the game. It eventually took the lead in the second half on — what else? — a Ron Baker 3. Miami in turn ripped the game back, and ultimately Gregg Marshall’s guys didn’t have the stamina to take a third win in five days.
But what fun it was, the first game to start the second round. You knew Baker and VanVleet weren’t going to get blown out on their way out.
“I never cry in these situations, because it’s my fault,” VanVleet said. “I played bad. (Angel) Rodriguez outplayed me. You’ve got to take that as a man. If you’re going to take all the praise and glory that comes with winning, you’ve got to take that in defeat as well.”
Almost everyone ends their college careers with a loss. If their finish had to be with an L, it wouldn’t come in embarrassing fashion. The two were slow to saunter back to the locker room; it’s hard to be forced to walk off the floor for a final time as a college player. And these two are a pair of unforgettable ones.
“They’ve got legions of fans across the world,” Marshall told me outside the team locker room. “They’re college basketball icons.”
Most definitely. And they are unique in their yin-yang existence. College basketball’s stars are, mostly, its coaches. Then you get guys who stand on their own and create tremendous legacies as individual players for however many years in college. Occasionally, you get an era-defining team like the Fab Five or the Florida group that opted to bypass NBA options and return to win consecutive national titles.
But an indelible twosome? In college hoops? That stays four years, sets records and changes the national perception of a program in the process?
“I don’t know if there’s been a duo like us who have stayed,” VanVleet told CBS Sports in the locker room afterward. “Most of the guys who’ve been as good as us, they leave and pursue other dreams.”
Baker and VanVleet are pioneers. Baker paid his own way to start his career at Wichita State. VanVleet stayed true to Marshall, even when other schools tried to talk him off his verbal to Wichita State. Either could have easily never landed there, but since they did, the history of college basketball changed forever.
“Batman and Robin — and I don’t know who’s Batman,” Marshall said.
Perfectly stated, Gregg. That’s what’s special about the two. They are equals. Usually there is a Batman and Robin. Here there is no distinction. We at CBS Sports always had a hard time deciding who we should pick for preseason Missouri Valley Player of the Year, and which guy should be placed higher on a preseaon All-American team. What they did was unprecedented at the mid-major level like in Wichita State.
It’s not even a given that you make the tournament at Wichita State. Yet these two went 9-4 in the Big Dance, which amounts to the most wins of any program over the past four years that’s made the NCAAs in each of those seasons.
Baker couldn’t hold back his tears at the dais after the game. He had guilt. As he spoke, Marshall couldn’t fight from tearing up. He knows how hard it will be to ever get another player like either of these guys again, let alone at the same time.
“A couple years ago, I told Fred that we would be back in the Final Four after we lost to Louisville, walking down the tunnel, and I wasn’t able to keep that promise to him,” Baker said. “The feeling right now, it’s not fun. I feel disappointed. I feel like I disappointed my teammates, my family.”
No reason for disappointment in the big picture. An undefeated regular season in 2014 and a No. 1 seed (again, for freaking Wichita State). A Final Four the year before that. A No. 1 seed. Takedowns of blue bloods (Indiana and Kansas) on the way to last year’s Sweet 16. Three Missouri Valley league titles and three consecutive 30-win seasons.
“Once we see how college basketball goes, when we’re older and we see how teams don’t have these types of runs in four years, I think that’s when we’ll realize how special it is,” Baker said.
These guys led a team that was No. 1 in defense in the nation this season. VanVleet is the program’s all-time leader in assists and steals. Ron Baker is the modern poster player for walk-on-turned-college-star. VanVleet won 120 games, which ties the school record, and he’s also a two-time MVC Player of the Year. You could easily claim Baker should have two to equal him.
Baker finished his NCAA Tournament career with 157 points; VanVleet with 154. Both are the most of any players who participated in this year’s tournament, and VanVleet had more steals and assists in the Dance than any current college player. They went 51-3 in the Valley over the past three regular season. They bombarded dozens of teams and upended college hoops royalty on the way to college basketball immortality.
“What they’ve done for this program, this university, the state of Kansas and college basketball, it’s been incredible,” Marshall said. “They’re tremendous professionals on and off the court. They’re pros. They handle their business like pros, and I’m deeply indebted to them, as we all are.”
It’s very uncommon for contemporary college basketball teams to have four-year runs of national relevance and be led by two of the best players in program history every one of those years. I spoke one-on-one with both guys afterward. As Baker and I were walking back to the locker room he stopped me, mid-gait, to talk in the privacy of the hallway and share words about Fred.
“If you could pick a guy to go through college with, it would definitely be him,” Baker said. “Such a trustworthy guy in any scenario. You can trust him to tell the truth and be honest with you. When you’ve got those kind of morals in you, you’re going to go a long way in life. Any time I needed confidence — usually the coaches are right there — but it was Fred, right there in my back pocket, giving me confidence. He made me the player I am today, really.”
VanVleet was leaned up against his wooden locker in the cramped room. He was reflective and proud of what the team had done. The sting of the loss was still there, but he was earnest in trying to immediately put this stage of his life in context.
“Me and Ron are definitely brothers,” he said. “I look at him the same way I look as blood brothers. We’ve had great chemistry throughout our careers. You talk about him the court, what a hell of a player he is, how much easier he makes my job and how he makes me look maybe better than I am. For us, the thing I take the most pride in is to do it at Wichita State. Today would have been three Sweet 16s. Talk about the bag of skulls I have in my room Arizona, we can go down the schools … to do it at Wichita State … people watch basketball and they know what they’re up against against. In terms of talent, it’s not even close. But we’re all fighters, we play together and we play the right way.”
They changed how we looked at Wichita State, how we looked at mid-major schools and what can be done over the course of multiple seasons. College basketball lost its power couple this weekend. Who knows when again we’ll see two players stay four years and remain nationally relevant the entire run.
Fred and Ron, Ron and Fred. Linked together by basketball forever. Thank you, both of you.