KANSAS CITY, MO — It's not surprising that Ron Baker sacrificed to make the final winning play in Wichita State's 75-62 victory over BYU on Tuesday night in the CBE Classic Championship.
Baker became a folk hero last March. The floppy-haired kid from western Kansas who paid his own way two years ago to even play for the Shockers. And there he was in the final minute at the Sprint Center, sprinting to the offensive glass where his jaw found the elbow of BYU's Nate Austin.
Austin was called for a flagrant-2 and ejected. Baker buried both free throws. A close game became what looks like an easy double-digit win for the Shockers because of Baker's hustle.
This is the point in the story that usually goes something along the lines of small-town kid makes all the gritty plays to get on the court. He doesn't belong on the court, but he makes himself belong.
But let me fill you in on a little secret before everyone else catches on. That's not the story of Ron Baker. Baker has screwed up that narrative and weaved a better one.
He's one of the best wings in the country.
Because, yes, Baker is that guy who makes all the subtle, hard-nosed plays that go appreciated by purists and coaches. "He effects winning," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. "He's always there effecting winning in a positive way."
But what Marshall also has in Baker is a star who can do just about everything on the court, and that includes score.
The Shockers are six games into the season, and Baker is tied with Cleanthony Early as the team's leading scorer. That's Early, the senior, and the guy who scored at will against Louisville in the Final Four and was expected to be Wichita State's go-to man.
"I think that when it came to possessions where they really got stuck and needed a play—whether it was a big shot, or a drive and kick, a big offensive rebound—he made really big plays for them," BYU coach Dave Rose said of Baker. "We had a hard time with him, his size, his physical presence and his skill level is really good."
In addition to Wichita State's resident marksman from deep, Baker is also playing the backup point guard spot, and as Rose noted, he's become the guy who Marshall goes to late in the clock when he needs someone to create for himself.
In other words, don't pigeonhole Baker as a spot-up shooter. He had an off-shooting night—he went 5-of-16—yet he still managed to score 23 points by getting to the line 11 times and sinking all 11.
Baker was also in on a lot of plays on the other end that led to BYU, averaging 94.6 points per game coming in, shoot a putrid 20 percent in the second half. He had two steals and two blocks and forced several other misses by getting to a spot where the Cougars didn't anticipate he would be.
"His defense, his steadiness are something beyond his years as a sophomore," Marshall said.
Marshall has a really good thing going in Wichita. As I wrote Tuesday night, this team is a better team than the Final Four team he had last year.
The Shockers got there, remember, in large part because Baker returned for the postseason from a stress fracture in his foot. They're now 21-3 with him in the lineup.
Because of that March run, Baker, for the time being, will be known as a guy who made big shot after big shot in the tournament.
But Baker's changing that narrative, and it's going to get noticed.
"Scouts at Wichita State practices to see Anthony come away liking the kid from western Kansas," ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla tweeted on Tuesday night.
Yep, that kid from western Kansas can ball.
You'll see it again come March.
Follow C.J. on Twitter @cjmoore4.
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