Wichita State Shockers' Baker celebrates while cutting down part of the net after defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes in their West Regional NCAA men's basketball game in Los Angeles

Gregg Marshall and his Merry Band of Misfits


ATLANTA — Sitting on a chair in his locker in the far corner of Wichita State’s locker room, Ron Baker must have been thankful that he wasn’t claustrophobic. He was surrounded by reporters — print, TV, internet — from across the country, blockaded by a swarm of video cameras, bright lights, recorders and iPhones that were shoved in his face for 25 minutes. Baker was peppered with questions, the topics ranging everywhere from playing against Russ Smith to his hometown in Kansas to … what the Easter holiday means for someone of Catholic faith.


He was asked what Easter means to him.

At the Final Four.

And Baker handled it all like a pro, calmly, intelligently and succinctly answering every question he was asked, mixing in enough small-town, Midwestern charm to win over reporters and blind them to the fact that the majority of what he said was typical press conference generality. If you didn’t know any better, you never would have guessed that Baker was a redshirt freshmen at a school that didn’t win a league title in the Missouri Valley who opted to walk-on for a year instead of go to Junior College or accept a Division II scholarship.

“My AAU coach was at Coffeyville [CC in Kansas] at the time, and that was my second option if Wichita State didn’t give me the opportunity to pay my first year,” Baker said.

“It’s definitely overwhelming. If I looked back two years ago and you told me I’d be sitting here, I’d probably call you crazy. It’s been a good trip for me and my family and everybody back home. They’re extremely excited.”

And why shouldn’t they be? Towns like Scott City, KS, population 3,800, don’t often send players to the Final Four. But it’s those small-town roots that make Baker’s path to this stage all the more impressive. His high school graduating class was 55 kids. Scott City has two stop lights. The reason he wasn’t recruited by bigger schools? They didn’t know about him. So imagine where he would be if his family had never moved to Scott City from Utica, KS.

“It’s about 50 miles northeast of Scott City,” Baker said. “Population about 280 people.”

The best part about this Wichita State team is that Baker may not even have the best story.

Carl Hall, their 24 year old starting power forward, suffers from a heart condition known as neurocardiogenic syncope. He’s passed out three times on the court, and that forced him away from the game. Instead of chasing his dream, Hall was working the graveyard shift, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., at a lighting company. He painted light-bulbs for 12 bucks-an-hour before going to school during the day and, finally, taking a nap at night before heading back to the factory.

“I wouldn’t recommend that job to anybody,” Hall said. “It was just a hot, nasty job. I tell them every day to stay in school and do they work.”

That lasted for two years. Finally, doctors told Hall that his medication had started to work and he would be able to resume playing the game he loved. He wound up at Wichita State after going to a JuCo, but it was still difficult for him to resume. On the one hand, he had to learn to trust his heart again. “Once you pass out you,” Hall told reporters in LA, “you don’t want to go through that situation again.” That made it difficult for him to get in shape, and Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall found it difficult to push Hall.

That’s understandable. He once watched a kid he was recruiting die on the court during a game due to a heart condition. When you see that happen once, it makes it a lot harder to convince yourself it’s worthwhile to push a kid beyond his limit.

But Hall persevered, averaging 22.3 minutes as a sixth-man as a junior and more than 28 minutes per game asa  senior.

“I remember like yesterday telling one of the workers that I wanted to start playing basketball, try to pursue my dream, try to play in March Madness one day,” Hall said.

Hall’s here, and if that wasn’t enough, he’ll be playing a car ride from his hometown of Cochran, GA. “I grew up an hour and a half from here,” he said, “and I’ve never been to the Dome.”

It’s the stories of guys like Hall and Baker that make the Shockers so likeable. Wichita State — a No. 9 seed, a team that couldn’t win a title this season in the Missouri Valley, a team with losses to Indiana State and Southern Illinois and got swept by Evansville — wasn’t supposed to beat Gonzaga and Ohio State and make it to Atlanta. Ron Baker and Carl Hall aren’t supposed to be recognizable names. They’re not supposed to be giving interview after interview to the biggest media outlets in the country.

And those two are not alone.

Malcolm Armstead has played at three different colleges during his career. After leaving Oregon as a junior, he redshirted and worked at a car dealership part-time to pay his tuition. “Sometimes I had to leave practice to go to work to be able to make money,” Armstead said. Cleanthony Early played at Division III Sullivan Community College before heading to Wichita. Ehimen Orukpe is from Lagos, Nigeria, by way of Three Rivers Community College. Kadeem Coleby is a transfer from Louisiana-Lafayette that is from the Bahamas. Chadrack Lufile and Nick Wiggins are from Canada, and Wiggins making the Final Four isn’t even the biggest story in his family. He’s the older brother of the nation’s No. 1 prospect, Andrew Wiggins.

The Shockers embody the underdog story, Marshall’s Merry Band of Misfits. And somehow, despite having a locker room full of pieces that didn’t fit somewhere else, the Shockers have made it work.

“A lot of people probably think I wouldn’t fit in with these guys,” Baker said with a laugh. “There’s a bunch of crazy men on this team.”

The craziest part is that they are now someplace no one ever thought they would be: 24 hours away from playing in the Final Four.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

CBT Podcast: Reactions to the NBCSports Player Rankings

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We’re rolling through our 2016-17 Season Preview package, and in the last week we churned out all our player rankings: From the top 100 players to the best back courts.

Top Backcourts | Top Frontcourts | Top 100 Players

POSITION RANKS: Lead Guards | Off Guards | Wings | Big Men

In today’s CBT Podcast, we took a look at our biggest misses, biggest regrets and the decisions that got the most pushback.

CONFERENCE PREVIEWS: Big 12 | ACC | Pac-12 | Big Ten

Subscribe to the CBT Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or Audioboom

Virginia’s Austin Nichols suspended

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Austin Nichols has been suspended for Virginia’s two exhibition games and their regular season opener for a violation of team rules, the program announced on Friday evening.

Nichols, a transfer fro Memphis that sat out the 2016-17 season, will miss a Nov. 11th tilt against UNC Greensboro.

Nichols was rated as the No. 12 player in the country in NBCSports’ top 100 player rankings. He was named a second-team preseason all-american as well.

Sun Belt Conference Preview: Remember the name Kevin Hervey

Texas-Arlington's Kevin Hervey, left, reacts to a 73-68 NCAA college basketball game win as Ohio State's Jae'Sean Tate looks on  in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, Nov. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)
AP Photo/Paul Vernon
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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Sun Belt Conference.

The Sun Belt has had quite a bit of talent come through the ranks over the course of the last three or four years. In 2014, it was Elfrid Payton playing his way into the lottery and coming within a couple of minutes of upsetting No. 3 seed Creighton and Doug McDermott in the first round of the NCAA tournament. In 2015, it was R.J. Hunter that became a first round draft pick after hitting a game-winning three to upset No. 3 Baylor – and knock his dad out of his chair. And last season, Arkansas-Little Rock was turned into a 30-win team by Chris Beard, who departed for Texas Tech by way of UNLV after upsetting Purdue in the first round of the Big Dance.

In other words, there is always talent in this league, and this season will be no different.

The star that you need to be paying attention to this season resides at UT-Arlington. His name is Kevin Hervey. A 6-foot-7 forward, Hervey was generating attention from NBA scouts with a terrific start to his sophomore season when he tore his ACL while warming up for a showdown with Little Rock last winter. At the time, Arlington was coming off of wins over Memphis and Ohio State and looked like a real mid-major threat. The good news? Arlington brings back their entire starting lineup, including Hervey, who is expected to be back to 100 percent by the time the season gets into full-swing. There’s no reason that the Mavericks can’t make the kind of run that Little Rock made last season.

Speaking of Little Rock, losing Beard is going to hurt. Wes Flanigan is a local guy that had been on the staff for five years over two different tenures, but he’ll have his work cut out for him replacing Josh Hagins, whose heroics spawned the upset of Purdue. Marcus Johnson Jr. and Lis Shoshi will be asked to play bigger roles while transfers Oliver Black (Mississippi State) and Dayshawn Watkins (Florida State) will play major minutes as well.

Ron Hunter has made his name at Georgia State by relying on transfers, but that also means he has had to adapt to dealing with turnover every year. This season is no different, as the Panthers have to replace three starters. They do return Jeremy Hollowell, however, and the former Indiana Hoosier has the talent to challenge for Sun Belt Player of the Year.

Louisiana is not only going to have to replace Shawn Long, one of the best to ever play in the Sun Belt, and Kasey Shepard, a 1,000-point scorer, they’re going to have to do it with the death of incoming freshman Herman Williams hanging over the program. Williams died of a heart attack while working out this summer. Cliff Ellis started his four-decade coaching career in the Sun Belt and he’ll likely end it there as well as Coastal Carolina move to the conference this year. Ellis has a veteran backcourt that led the Chanticleers to a 12-6 mark in the Big South last season.

If there’s a sleeper in the league it’s Arkansas State. Devin Carter, the league’s second-leading scorer, returns, as does Donte Thomas, one of four players nationally to average 11 points, 5.5 assists and 5.5 boards. Keep an eye on Georgia Southern as well as Tookie Brown may be the best scorer in the conference and the Eagles return five starters that were freshmen or sophomores. Troy and South Alabama will be in the mix for a top-six finish thanks to Wesley Person and Ken Williams, respectively.

Appalachian State has a good sophomore class that Jim Fox needs to come of age quickly as he tries to replace three starters on a team that finished 7-13 in the league. Danny Kaspar is known for building programs from the ground up, but in year four at Texas State, the Bobcats haven’t finished above .500 yet. ULM finished second in the league last season but they lost four starters.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule



The Sun Belt always has at least one guy whose names bounces around NBA Draft circles and this season it is Hervey, whose torn ACL derailed what could have been a special season for the Mavericks. With everyone back, a healthy Hervey is a scary thing for opponents to hear about.


  • Tookie Brown, Georgia Southern: The former Mississippi State commit averaged 17.8 points as a sophomore.
  • Jeremy Hollowell, Georgia State: The former Hoosier is one of the most talented players in the league.
  • Erick Neal, UT-Arlington: The Mavericks have a chance to have a special season and Neal is the engine that makes them run.
  • Marcus Johnson Jr., Little rock: Someone needs to step-up with Beard and Hagins gone.



1. UT Arlington
2. Georgia State
3. Georgia Southern
4. Little Rock
5. Louisiana
6. Coastal Carolina
7. Arkansas State
8. Troy
9. South Alabama
10. ULM
11. Texas State
12. Appalachian State

Talented Kentucky begins another year with high expectations

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 21:  The mascot of the Kentucky Wildcats in action against the Cincinnati Bearcats during the third round of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KFC YUM! Center on March 21, 2015 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Kentucky coach John Calipari once again must figure out how to use his latest talented freshman class, which this year is big and fills voids at many positions.

All of which means another season of high expectations at a school where a national championship is always the standard.

After finishing 27-9 and losing in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32 last spring, Kentucky appears capable of contending for a ninth NCAA title. This despite losing six players including several regulars such as Associated Press All-American guards Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray, who combined to average 37 points per game last season, and 6-foot-11 Skal Labissiere.

Kentucky landed guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, both 6-foot-3 high school All-Americans who join sophomore Isaiah Briscoe (9.9 points, 5.3 rebounds per game) in the backcourt. All can handle the ball and shoot, giving Calipari some options, compared with last year’s squad run by Ulis.

“This team will probably have three guys having the ball, and we’ll play off them,” Calipari said. “One may have it more, but the other two are going to have it a significant amount of time. So that makes it different.”

But this recruiting class is all about the bigs with the additions of Edrice “Bam” Adebayo and Sacha Killeya-Jones – a pair of 6’10” All-Americans – and 6’9″ Wenyen Gabriel.

Adebayo has an NBA body and is fierce around the basket on both ends of the floor. Killeya-Jones and Gabriel are long and guard the rim as well.

The Wildcats also return size with 7-footer Isaac Humphries and 6’10” redshirt freshman Tai Wynyard, giving Kentucky its tallest frontcourt since the 38-1 team that reached the Final Four two years ago. Nobody’s making that grand comparison yet as the team works to form chemistry.

“We all want the same dream, so we just try to accomplish it together,” Monk said. “It’s easy to sacrifice if you have great players around you.”

Other things to watch in Kentucky this season:

MATURE BRISCOE: Isaiah Briscoe worked out with NBA teams last spring to gauge his pro prospects before returning for his sophomore season . He’s more seasoned by the experience, and more muscular. The biggest benefits might be his improved shooting – which Kentucky needs from him after an inconsistent freshman season – and his eagerness to lead. “It forced me to grow up,” Briscoe said of the process. “Being one of the few guys to come back (under Calipari), I’ll be able to lead these guys.”

BLUEGRASS GRAYBEARDS: Kentucky has seniors for the second straight season, both of whom could play bigger roles. Forward Derek Willis is working to add defense to his game after averaging career bests of 7.7 points and 4.4 rebounds last season and becoming part of the rotation. Guard Dominique Hawkins just aims to stay healthy after his junior year was limited by injuries. He’s a physical defensive specialist being encouraged to shoot more this season.

COACH’S KID: If things get loud in Rupp near the end of a Kentucky rout, it might be fans clamoring for Calipari to put his son, Brad, on the floor. The 6-foot freshman is a walk-on with an eye toward coaching one day but figures to become a fan favorite for obvious reasons.

RENOVATED RUPP: The Wildcats’ home begins its 40th anniversary season with a new floor and center-hung scoreboard and video screen that has replaced the “Big Bertha” bank of loudspeakers, which resembled an oversized pine cone. The arena has already added high-definition video boards in the corners and other electronic features to enhance the game experience.

KEY GAMES: Kentucky’s always-tough nonconference schedule includes matchups against Michigan State on Nov. 15 in the Champions Classic; a home game against UCLA (Dec. 3); consecutive contests against North Carolina (Dec. 17) and at archrival Louisville (Dec. 21); and a Jan. 28 home game against Kansas in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.



See what NC State freshman did to Abdul-Malik Abu’s arm

SYRACUSE, NY - FEBRUARY 27:  Abdul-Malik Abu #0 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack drives to the basket as DaJuan Coleman #32 of the Syracuse Orange defends during the first half on February 27, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York.  (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Rebounding can be a war at times. Even when it involves teammates.

NC State junior forward Abdul-Malik Abu, one of the best rebounders in the nation, showed up to ACC Media Day in Washington, D.C. earlier this week with battle scars from a recent drill with freshman forward Ted Kapita.

“When you’re battling for rebounds, there’s a lot of hand movements,” Abu said, according to Aaron Beard of the Associated Press. “And he has nails, so he’s just kind of like slicing through.”

Abu told reporters he had the first-year forward cut his nails shortly after the incident.

The 6-foot-8 Abu, the ACC’s top returning rebounder, averaged 12.9 points, 8.8 boards and 1.3 rebounds per game as a sophomore last season. Kapita is ranked as four-star recruit by Rivals.

The Wolfpack were picked to finish sixth in the loaded ACC.