By Paul Suellentrop
Tribune News Service
Ron Baker wears cargo pants. Hunter Pence hates bacon. Ron Baker likes Nickelback. Hunter Pence lives in a van by the river.
It is Missouri Valley Conference basketball time and that means student sections are warming up for Wichita State, planning their court-storming route and their Ron Baker signs. Boosted by the Final Four, great hair and a great jump shot, Baker is the Hunter Pence of the MVC, a constant target of teasing and signage from fans.
"Ron Baker wears cargos -- I'm not sure what it means," teammate Ria'n Holland said. "He handles it real well. I don't even think he hears it. At least he acts like he doesn't."
The 16th-ranked Shockers (10-2) open MVC play at Drake (3-9) tonight. Drake is on semester break, which might dampen the student turnout a bit. The Shockers can count on a larger-than-average crowd at the Knapp Center and every other MVC stop, like last season when they out-drew the average at all nine arenas.
Fans come hoping to see their school make history with a win over a ranked opponent. They come to see their team attempt to hand the Shockers their first MVC loss since 2013 -- a streak of 21 games. As much as anything, it seems, the students come to mock Baker.
Baker is ready for another round of abuse. He hears some of it, although he declines to react until after the game when his teammates fill him in on what he missed and laugh about the heckling.
"That's when it's funny," he said.
Like Pence, the San Francisco Giants outfielder with crazy eyes, curly hair and an impossible-to-duplicate hitting style, Baker is an irresistible attraction for anybody with a loud mouth, poster board and a black magic marker. Baker himself noticed a similarity and considered wearing a Pence costume for Halloween. His long blond hair and the attention from his play in the 2013 NCAA Tournament started it all.
"The hair is a regular deal," Baker said. "'Get a haircut' is the go-to for most schools. Usually I'm the crowd favorite, and I don't really know why."
Baker first saw a surge in attention last season during MVC play, after the 2013 Final Four raised his profile.
Student sections at Missouri State, Illinois State and Drake targeted him with signs and words, many not fit for print. After the game at Loyola, he autographed a sign reading "Ron Baker wears cargo pants." In non-conference play this season, Detroit fans chanted his girlfriend's name. Utah fans chanted a suggestion that Baker had an unwanted parasitic affliction.
"The first time it was really bad was against Missouri State last year," he said. "It was kind of surprising. It seemed like their whole student section's focus was on heckling me, and their student section is one of the best in the conference."
Northern Iowa students made a big head of him from his freshman year when he wore a perm. He considers Panther fans the most polite in the MVC.
"They're more appropriate than most schools," he said.
WSU starts MVC play as the favorite, but their play in last week's Diamond Head Classic may give opponents hope.
The Shockers needed a last-second shot to beat Hawaii 80-79 and lost 60-54 to George Washington. Their offense struggled in those two games and Baker and guard Fred VanVleet both shot poorly -- Baker 9 of 31 and VanVleet 7 of 24. As a team, WSU shot under 40 percent in both games. Hawaii and George Washington out-performed their season numbers from three-point range against WSU, with Hawaii making 43.5 percent (10 of 23) of its threes and GW making 60 percent (9 of 15).
WSU coach Gregg Marshall will let Baker and VanVleet, both juniors, stand on performances over the bulk of their careers. Baker, even with a recent slump, is shooting 40 percent from three-point range this season and 37.9 percent for his career. While VanVleet is shooting 37 percent from the field and 30.2 percent behind the arc this season, his career numbers (43.2 percent and 38.8 percent) are more satisfactory.
"Ron Baker's made a lot of big shots around here," Marshall said. "We're going to go as far as guys like Ron Baker can carry us. I was a national Coach of the Year last year, because of Ron Baker, because of Fred VanVleet, because of those guys. I'm very cognizant that those guys made this program what it is today and I'm going to continue to encourage them. I'm going to continue to tell them, 'When you're open, let it fly.'"
While the loss to George Washington doubled WSU's loss total from last season, Marshall returned from the three-game session encouraged with his team's growing depth. Freshman Rashard Kelly started in place of injured Evan Wessel. Freshmen Zach Brown and Rauno Nurger showed signs of handling more minutes. Brown improved his defense, earned a high-profile assignment against Loyola Marymount's leading scorer, and made 5 of 6 three-pointers. Nurger continues to show scoring ability and Marshall liked the way he ran the floor during the tournament.
"When you have eight newcomers, six freshmen, your upside is considerably greater than maybe what it was last year, when you had all the veterans," he said. "We may not be where we want to be today, but we have a chance to get better."
Wessel, a 6-foot-4 junior, missed three games with a sprained right ankle. He said he planned to see how injury reacts after Tuesday's practice, keeping the door open to trying to play against Drake.
"It's getting better," he said. "We'll see how it goes."
The injury limited Wessel to non-contact drills in practices since the Shockers returned from Hawaii.
"He's obviously a very tough young man, so I would anticipate he may try to give it a go, but I don't know," Marshall said. "They may tell me (Wednesday) that it's just too early. I know that he's trying very hard to get back and we need him."