WICHITA, Kan. – All those sages who claim there are valuable lessons to be learned from a loss have never met Ron Baker, the mop-haired sophomore guard for No. 4 Wichita State.
You see, the Shockers are riding a perfect start to the season, pushing their record to 26-0 with a 78-67 victory over Southern Illinois on Tuesday night. But people seem to forget that the Fabulous Baker Boy was actually hurt during much of their Final Four run a year ago.
So that 30-9 record that Wichita State had last season? Six of those defeats came with Baker on the bench, trying desperately to recover from a stress fracture in his foot.
"I didn't realize that until you mentioned it," he said. "I wouldn't say it's because I'm on the floor, though. I think the teammates I'm around kind of help put that record together."
Nevertheless, Baker has had a big part in it. He returned from his injury in time for the Missouri Valley tournament, where the Shockers lost to Creighton in the title game, and was a big reason why they advanced to the Final Four, losing to eventual champion Louisville.
His only other loss came in an early visit to Tennessee last year.
This season, Baker is the Shockers' second-leading scorer at nearly 13 points per game, and he's also second on the team in assists and arguably their best perimeter defender.
Being the star is nothing new, though. Neither is winning.
Baker averaged more than 20 points as a senior for tiny Scott City (Kan.) High School, leading the Beavers to a 25-1 record. The three-sport star — he was a standout quarterback and accomplished baseball player — poured in 26 points in the Class 3A championship, including the buzzer-beating putback that gave Scott City the title. His knack for seizing the moment has continued at Wichita State.
The Shockers were struggling along against the Salukis until Baker heated up Tuesday night. He wound up hitting three 3-pointers in the second half, part of his game-high 19 points, lifting Wichita State to a tougher-than-expected victory that kept their perfect record intact.
"I like that kid a lot. I kind of drift toward shooters — you can tell, because we don't have a lot on our team," Salukis coach Barry Hinson joked. "And you can see he's having fun."
He wasn't having a whole lot of fun midway through the game, when Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall got into his face on the sideline. The sophomore was passing up open looks and instead trying to make the remarkable play, and Marshall wasn't very happy.
Their one-sided conversation played out within earshot of hundreds of fans seated courtside.
"I told Ron that for whatever reason, I think he's going at least one dribble too far at times," Marshall said. "He's trying to make a spectacular play or a spectacular pass, but he's open off ball screens. Shoot the basketball! That's what you do. You're not Magic Johnson, not yet. Just shoot the ball instead of trying to make these home-run plays."
Baker clearly listened to his advice, popping off a series of open jumpers with an effortless shooting touch. By the time he hit his final 3 in the closing minutes, the game was well in hand.
It wasn't easy, not by a long shot, but it kept the Shockers undefeated. It also kept Baker's near-perfect career just as impressive as it was at the beginning of the night.
"At this point, you have to learn from winning, which is tough for a lot of teams," Baker said. "For us, we haven't had a chance to learn from losing. We don't want to, either."