For Wichita State’s Ron Baker, sacrifices pay off with unlikely Final Four run

Somehow, getting his driver's license when he turned 16 is now merely the second best birthday present Wichita State guard Ron Baker has received.

That pales in comparison to the dream 20th birthday party Baker experienced Saturday in Los Angeles.

He started in an Elite Eight game as a redshirt freshman for Wichita State. He climbed a ladder and cut down a strand of net after the Shockers upset heavily favored Ohio State to advance to the Final Four. And hundreds of fans who made the trip from Wichita serenaded him during the postgame revelry while the school's pep band played "Happy Birthday" in his honor.

"By far the best birthday a 20-year-old can imagine," Baker said. "It doesn't get better than this."

If Wichita State's roster of castoffs and overlooked recruits is especially appreciative of its improbable Final Four run, then it's safe to say Baker may be the most thankful of all the Shockers to be playing in Atlanta. Very few Division I coaches saw him play in high school since he grew up in a town of 4,000 in rural Kansas, so Baker actually paid his own way to attend Wichita State last year before earning a scholarship this season.

Since returning from a stress fracture in his left foot just in time for the Missouri Valley tournament last month, Baker's relentless effort and accurate perimeter shooting has been instrumental in Wichita State's success. The 6-foot-3 redshirt freshman torched top-seeded Gonzaga for 16 points and four 3-pointers in the round of 32, lit up La Salle for 13 points five nights later and sank all nine of his free throws in the Final Four-clinching win over the Buckeyes on Saturday.

"Him being back means a lot to us," Cleanthony Early said. "He probably does surprise our opponents because they probably think he's just a shooter, but he's going to dive on the floor, he's going to lock you up and he's going to play with heart. I don't know if they're surprised, but they've got game film. If they're not doing their studies on him, that's on the other coaching staff."

Baker's success at Wichita State is no surprise to those who know his mother and father.

Ranae Baker was a three-sport athlete at Dodge City Community College. Neil Baker played baseball at Fort Hays State. Since both grew up on farms, became accomplished athletes and now coach sports as adults, Ranae and Neil were the perfect role models to instill a work ethic in their eldest son at an early age.

Basketball was always Baker's chosen sport, but the three-sport star wasn't sure he was big enough to play in college until a growth spurt the summer before his junior year at Scott City High School. He emerged as a star player for Scott City, but the only Division I schools who extended scholarship offers were South Dakota State and Arkansas Little Rock, both of which Baker felt were too far from home for him to seriously consider.

"When we were starting the recruiting process, he got frustrated he wasn't getting any offers," Ranae said. "Playing in college had been his dream since he was five years old, and he was worried it might not happen."

Wichita State's first exposure to Baker came when he attended an elite camp at the school the summer before his senior year of high school. He impressed the coaching staff enough for them to track his progress, but they had no scholarship to offer since fellow shooting guard prospect Evan Wessell had already committed to the Shockers.

When Wichita State associate head coach Chris Jans scouted Baker during the Kansas state tournament, he realized the Shockers would be making a mistake if they let Baker slip through their fingers. Baker led Scott City to the 3A state championship as a senior, scoring the winning basket on his team's final possession.

Before Wichita State approached Baker, his plan was either to play at Division II Fort Hays State or to go to a local junior college for two years in hopes of catching the eye of a Division I coach with his play. The interest from Jans and head coach Gregg Marshall inspired Baker's parents to propose paying for him to attend Wichita State as a freshman during the 2011-12 season if it meant he could be on scholarship starting the following year.

"When they brought that up, we just shot through the roof," Jans recalled. "We were like, 'Oh man, we'd love for you to do that. We don't want to ask you to do that, but we'd love for you to do that.'"

Having bulked up in the weight room and gotten accustomed to the speed of the college game while redshirting last season, Baker has excelled this season.

Baker has averaged 8.6 points and 2.9 rebounds and the team is 15-2 in games in which he has played. In four NCAA tournament games, he is averaging 11 points and four rebounds in 32 minutes per game.

On the morning of Wichita State's Sweet 16 game against La Salle, Scott City officials held "Ron Baker Day," a town-wide celebration of everything the guard had accomplished coming from humble roots to college basketball's big stage. That was a surreal but special honor for a kid who just a couple years ago couldn't find a school in a neighboring state that thought he was worthy of a scholarship.

"To me, I just hope I prove a lot of people wrong," Baker said. "I wasn't highly recruited out of high school. Coach Jans gave me a look when I was a junior and stuck with me as a senior. I had to pay my own way last year, but it has definitely worked out."

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