This season of college basketball is different. We have grown accustomed to the idea that freshmen and sophomores run the show. But this winter, it was the year of the senior. Buddy Hield, Denzel Valentine and Brice Johnson all had breakout seasons. But over all of them, there will never be a duo like Wichita State’s Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet.
“Batman and Robin — and I don’t know who’s Batman,” Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall told reporters after their 65-57 loss to Miami in Baker and VanVleet’s final collegiate game. Marshall’s comment may be the most accurate statement regarding this duo. Over their four years, sometimes VanVleet would take over, other times Baker would. Regardless of who carried the Shockers, this backcourt twosome found a way to win. Their career resume’s include a surprise Final Four run their freshmen year, an undefeated regular season record as sophomore’s, and a Sweet Sixteen appearance as juniors. However it may be there second round exit this March that perhaps exemplified their entire collegiate career the best, and proved why this duo will never be repeated. One of the most amazing parts of their career was the consistency they brought to this mid-major basketball program. Over their four years, Wichita State went through 24 different players on their roster, and even with all that roster turnover, this duo found a way to stay successful each year they were in a Shockers uniform.
After enduring a regular season that encountered many injuries, Wichita State limped into the NCAA Tournament this March as an 11-seed–the lowest seed in Baker and VanVleet’s four-year tenure. Walloping SEC-bully Vanderbilt in the play-in round and dominating PAC-12 powerhouse Arizona two nights later proved that Baker and VanVleet would not go quietly in their NCAA Tournament swan song performance. Down 27-6 to 3-seed Miami in the second round game, it looked like Wichita State had some tired legs. After playing three games in five days, most teams would have folded after a 21-point deficit in the first half. But did anyone really expect Baker and VanVleet to get blown out without a fight in their final game? Midway through the second half, the Shockers took a 43-42 lead. Of course, it was a Ron Baker three-pointer that gave them the lead. Miami came back to win, but this may have been the most surprising run over their four years. A bubble team that was not expected by many to make it out of the First Four play-in game, ended a talented Arizona team’s season, and took a Final Four candidate to the brink of their season.
From freshmen year to senior year, these two understood that they coincided. They worked together. One would have a breakout game, and then the other would have one the next day. Personal statistics didn’t bother these two, they just cared about winning. A combination like this is something we don’t see in basketball anymore, and it’s a shame to see it end. “They truly left their mark and they’ve taken us all on a magic carpet ride.” Marshall said, in the post game press conference after their loss to Miami, reflecting on the amazing careers they both had. “It was fun, it was exhilarating, it was new, and we’re all deeply indebted and appreciative of their efforts and the way they’ve handled themselves.” And a magic carpet ride it was. With 121 career wins, a 9-4 record and the current leaders in points and assists in the NCAA Tournament, these two put fans of the sport on the edge of their seats for four years.
Take in what’s left of this year of college basketball as best as you can, because their will never be one like it. Most likely, programs like Duke and Kentucky will continue to bring in heralded freshmen to dominate college basketball for five months, only to leave for the NBA immediately after. This season most definitely different. This season was the year of the senior, and no one represented this quite like Baker and VanVleet. As college basketball fans, we will never forget the four year run that Wichita State’s-own Batman and Robin put together.