Baker matches up with Pan-American teammate in Providence

Evan Pflugradt

Providence, Rhode IslandMost days, senior Ron Baker finishes up practice, showers and then gets into his pickup truck to drive home, his teammate and roommate Evan Wessel already there. But for much of the summer, Baker went off to another location, and to a different room and with a different roommate.

Baker spent most of his summer crowding into a hotel room with Arizona’s seven-foot center Kaleb  Tarczewski. On Thursday, Baker, and the senior, Tarczewski will meet on the same court, this time as opponents. 

Together they were Bronze medalist in the Pan-American games. Baker recalls the talent of the 7-foot senior who helped him reach his summer accolades, and it doesn’t take him long to remember his play.

“It’s pretty evident how Kaleb plays, he plays extremely hard,” Baker said. “He’s a great player and a fun person to be around.”

On Thursday the NCAA Tournament officially started the first round of play, a survive-and-advance competition. In loo of potential upsets, in what is coined ‘madness’, seniors are speaking a lot about their journey, knowing full and well, their time on a college court could end any day.

This March, strikes a contrast with years past, four and five-year seniors are the focal point in this year’s tournament. Veteran-products are flourishing in the spotlight, one recently ruled by one-and-done freshmen.

Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, Kansas’s Perry Ellis all will play their final college games in the coming weeks. Wichita State’s Baker and Fred VanVleet will pair up against four-year Arizona standout Tarczewski, and one’s college career will close Thursday.

“It’s going to be tough to see one of us walk off the court tomorrow as a loser, and end our college careers,” Baker said of Tarczewski. “We’re both winners and we enjoy winning, we’ve had a lot of success in college, it’s sad to see one of our careers come to an end.”

It’s the inevitable fact of college basketball, every great must move on at some point, but it’s no fact or sentiment Baker said he’s willing to face for himself or his friend.

“I really wish we were on the same team,” Baker said.

Though for Baker, the real focus is to extend his time in a Shocker uniform as long as possible, so in quick thinking, he’s recalling as much as he can to prepare his forwards on how to disrupt the lengthy and aggressive Tarczewski.   

VanVleet, who roomed with Tarczewski in the Pan-American tryouts, has also been educating in a 48-hour history lesson of his own.

“He’s huge, that’s what Fred keeps telling me,” sophomore Shaq Morris said. “Fred and Ron like to tell me a lot about his size, his power. In the last few hours, I’ve learned a lot about Tarczewski.”

According to Baker, there’s only much he’s willing to share about Tarczewski. He noted the seven-footer’s ability to rebound, what defense works well on him, but all in brief detail. According to Baker, not much is different in their game plan, and he wants his teammates to rely less on his words and more to the team’s scouting report.

“Our strategy is going to be the same — play good defense, rebound and try and knock down some shots — but we’re going to have to guard them, and guard them well, they’re skilled in almost every position,” he said.  

VanVleet recognized the talent of his front court — they’ve successfully defeated prized seven-footers Jakob Poeltl, Stephen Zimmerman Jr., Egidijus Mockevicius and now, Damian Jones — now he’s focused on relishing the same confidence in his front court as they prepare for Arizona’s four-year product.  

“I’ve been asking Fred about Kaleb [Tarczewski], and he sat me down and said, ‘listen, Tarczewski is huge, he’s talented, but if I had to pick, I’d take you’” Morris said. “I’m glad Fred has so much confidence in me, now, I really want to win it for him.”

Morris was limited in action on Tuesday, he played nine minutes and was challenged with foul trouble. He scored four points and had a block on defense. Morris said he wants to regroup and refocus, he said the ultimate goal is to slow the scoring of any opponent he sizes up with, whether it’s Tarczewski or another of Zona’s three seven-footers.  

“They stopped talking too much about him, they expect me to bring it as a player and let my talents speak for themselves, no matter who it is who is stepping out on the court,” Morris said.

VanVleet acknowledges the success of Arizona’s starting center, but believes it’s nothing in comparison to the skill set his front court brings. 

“I have confidence in all of our guys that we’ll step up to the challenge, we’ll be ready to go,” he said. 

Tarczewski is Arizona’s winningest player, with 110 career wins in 134 games he boasts an 82 percent career winning-percentage.

He averages 9.4 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. A natural seven-footer who weighs 250 lbs, Tarczweski can cause a lot of match up issues for those trying to guard him. 

“He’s not a fun opponent to go against by any means,” Baker said. “He’s going to be a handful.” 

Tarczewski has played in 11 NCAA Tournament games, he and senior Gabe York as the second-most experienced duo in the NCAA Tournament, behind WSU’s Baker and VanVleet who have combined for 22 post-season appearances.

“It’s a game of experience for sure,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said.

Tarczewski wonders if he’ll tie, or even eclipse the mark Baker and VanVleet surpassed, when they added a victory to their post-season record in Dayton. He’s played with them, and now, he said playing against them will be both an honor, and a challenge.  

“Those two, Baker and VanVleet, are the ultimate competitors,” Tarczewski said. “They love to win, they really run the team, and I respect what they do.”

Even though it’s the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, neither senior will admit it feels like one. In a finale in Providence, one of the duos, Baker and VanVleet, or York and Tarczewski will March on and stay a senior a few more days, maybe a few more weeks.

“We’re experienced and they’re experienced, we’ve each been here and know what to expect,” Baker said. “I’m going to enjoy it, I keep saying, this is about relaxing and having fun. Might as well take advantage of the opportunity.”

Together, when VanVleet, Baker and Tarczewski take the court, it’ll be their first and last meeting with Arizona and Wichita State stitched across their chest, but they’ll remain close long after the jerseys are off. 

“We’ll remain friends, but when it’s time to play, it’s time to play,” VanVleet said.