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

6 Comments

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.

Seriously.

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.

No. 6 Kentucky bounces back with blowout win against Valparaiso

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 07:  De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball during the game against the Valparaiso Crusaders at Rupp Arena on December 7, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Bam Adebayo finished with 16 points and Malik Monk chipped in with 15 as No. 6 Kentucky blew out Valparaiso in Rupp Arena, 87-63.

The outcome was really never in doubt in this one, as Kentucky jumped out to leads of 24-4 and 35-9 against a good Crusaders team. The Wildcats were coming off of a loss to UCLA where they gave up 97 points in their home arena, getting humbled in a game that was supposed to solidify their standing as the best team in college basketball.

Kentucky’s defense on Wednesday was just suffocating. Valpo finished with 19 turnovers while shooting 34.3 percent from the floor, numbers that were somewhat inflated by the fact that Kentucky had this game won in the first 10 minutes.

Valpo is a good basketball team. They’ve beaten Alabama, BYU and Rhode Island this season, and their only two losses on the year have come on the road to Oregon and Kentucky.

But this?

This was a buzzsaw they ran into. Winning at Kentucky was never going to be easy. Winning there 72 hours after UCLA beat Kentucky in Rupp Arena was always going to be near-impossible.

Valpo will be fine. Come Selection Sunday, this is going to look like a really good win for the Wildcats.

PHOTO: Pres. Bush, P.M. Cameron sit courtside at SMU

DALLAS, TX - DECEMBER 17:  Former U.S. President George W. Bush attends a game between the Illinois-Chicago Flames and the Southern Methodist Mustangs at Moody Coliseum on December 17, 2014 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Leave a comment

President George W. Bush is no stranger to sports in the Dallas area, most notably as the former owner of the Texas Rangers.

On Wednesday, he sat courtside at Moody Coliseum for a game between TCU and SMU. He was joined by his wife, First Lady Laura Bush, and former British prime minister David Cameron.

They’re no Jack Nicholson or Penny Marshall, but not bad star power for a non-conference game in December.

No. 16 Butler suffers first loss at the hands of Indiana State

ST. LOUIS, MO - MARCH 5: Brenton Scott #4 of the Indiana State Sycamores shoots the ball against the Evansville Aces during MVC Basketball Tournament  Semifinals at the Scottrade center on March 5, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
Leave a comment

There are now just 10 undefeated teams left in college basketball after No. 16 Butler fell to Indiana State on Wednesday night, 72-71.

It was the second time this season that a top 25 team from the state of Indiana lost a road game to an in-state foe, and it was the second this season that in-state foe had a Scott twin on the roster.

Brenton Scott plays for the Syramores. The senior guard had 24 points, nine boards, three assists and a pair of steals to lead the way for Indiana State on Wednesday night. His twin brother, Bryson, had 18 points, 12 boards three assists and three steals for Fort Wayne when they picked up a win over then-No. 3 Indiana earlier this season.

Brenton wasn’t the star on Wednesday. That title belongs to Matt Van Scyoc. He had 23 points and hit six threes on the night, with three of them being daggers that came in the final three minutes of the game.

This loss is going to hurt for the Bulldogs come March. Where Fort Wayne has a chance to be the Summit League champions this season, Indiana State is a team that already has a loss to a bad Quinnipiac team and looks destined to finish in the bottom half of the Missouri Valley.

If you needed another example for why high-major head coaches don’t schedule road games against mid-major competition, this is it. Chris Holtmann’s Bulldogs were on the wrong side of a court-storming with more than three months left until the start of Big East play and in the process took a loss that could end up having a significant impact on their NCAA tournament seeding.

That’s not exactly ideal for the Bulldogs.

Andrew Chrabascz led the way with 18 points for Butler. Their leading scorer on the season, Kelan Martin, had just 12 points on 4-for-15 shooting.

VIDEO: Central Michigan’s Marcus Keene hits ridiculous three

Leave a comment

You should know the name Marcus Keene by now.

He’s the nation’s leading scorer, the only guy in the country averaging better than 30 points this season; at just 5-foot-9, he’s averaging 31.4 points, 5.1 assists and 4.6 boards. On Tuesday night, Keene went for 40 points. He was in such a zone, he felt the need to make this little pirouette before banging home a three.

I mean, just check this out:

Here’s what makes that shot so crazy: this game wasn’t close to over!

Central Michigan was up by six points with more than two minutes left, and Keene not only buried that shot, he actually shot it.

Former Kentucky coach Gillispie announces retirement

CHAPEL HILL, NC - NOVEMBER 18:  Head coach Billy Gillispie of the Kentucky Wildcats looks on during the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at the Dean E. Smith Center on November 18, 2008 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
2 Comments

One of the most mercurial college coaching careers of recent years is coming to a close.

Billy Gillispie, who rose in the profession to helming Kentucky and then fell to the junior college ranks, is retiring amid health concerns, he told the Dallas Morning News.

“No one’s ever enjoyed coaching more than I have, I promise, and no one’s ever been luckier in the coaching profession than I have,” Gillispie told the newspaper in a text message. “What a wonderful career!

“I’ve been very sick with blood pressure issues since the summer, but I’ve tried to fight it out. I got a report Monday that told me if I didn’t address this blood pressure situation immediately, irreversible, bad things were very likely to happen here relatively soon and my long-term health could be compromised.

“Timing isn’t great, but I’ve decided to do what I was told and try to return to healthy ASAP.

“I’ve had a wonderful career and in the last two years some of the best days I’ve ever experienced as a coach. I hate leaving this team because they are really coming around, but they understood me being sick. That’s the worst part of it, not coaching.”

After lengthy stints as an assistant, Gillispie got his first head coaching job at UTEP in 2002 and turned the Miners into an NCAA tournament team by his second season, which paved the way for his exit to Texas A&M and the Big 12. He won 20-plus games in all three of his seasons with the Aggies and brought them to back-to-back NCAA tournaments, spending much of the 2006-07 season ranked in the top-10.

Gillispie then took over for one of the most storied programs in the history of the sport when Tubby Smith bolted for Minnesota, but he would last just two seasons in Lexington before being fired after missing the 2009 NCAA tournament.

Two years later he resurfaced at Texas Tech, but didn’t make it to a second season in Lubbock after allegations of player mistreatment.

He’s spent the last year-and-half at Ranger College in Texas.