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Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker

Wichita State's Fred VanVleet (23) and Ron Baker react after VanVleet hit a 3-pointer against Kansas in the NCAA Tournament last March. VanVleet and Baker return for their senior seasons and have Wichita State poised for a third straight Missouri Valley Conference regular-season championship.

Years from now, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet will be mentioned together in the same sentence when talking about Wichita State's basketball glory days. Baker knows that as well as anyone.

It's also part of the reason Baker didn't want to deny himself one more year with his Shocker backcourt mate.  

"Playing with him for three years has been very fun and we've managed to be very successful," said Baker. "Knowing you could turn pro (last spring) and not be with your teammates is something I thought about, and not being with Fred was a major factor in that."

So Baker returned to Wichita State, along with VanVleet, who also considered going to the NBA. The Shockers' coach, Gregg Marshall, stuck around too (and got a nice salary boost to $3 million per year) after Alabama tried to lure him away.

With their three key pieces in the fold, Wichita State appears ready to keep its dominance over the Missouri Valley Conference.

The Shockers, 35-1 in the league the last two years, were a near unanimous choice in the league's preseason poll to take their third straight regular-season championship.

Wichita State is ranked No. 10 in the preseason Associated Press poll, opening with a top-10 ranking for the first time in 34 years. Marshall has led the Shockers to 151 wins in the past five seasons, a mark topped only by Kentucky.

"What they've accomplished is incredible ... They do it year after year. It's not easy to do," said Evansville coach Marty Simmons. "It gives us something to shoot for."

Evansville, which won the Tournament, returns its starting lineup and hopes to become the Shockers' main challenger. UNI lost three starters, including MVC Player of the Year Seth Tuttle, but several key contributors are back from a 31-win team.

Illinois State has three starters and a couple reserves returning who upset the Shockers in the MVC Tournament semifinals before losing to UNI in the championship game. Loyola brings back most of its squad which won the College Basketball Invitational.

Eight of the 10 teams return more starters than they lost. The only new coach in the Valley is Brian Wardle, who inherits a massive rebuilding job at Bradley.

"I think there are some good teams at the top," said Marshall. "There should be three, four, five, six, even seven (teams) who could be really good."

As usual, guard play will rule in the Valley. Eight of the nine players who received votes to the preseason all-conference team were guards (the exception being Evansville's 6-foot-10 Egidijus Mockevicius). The only non-senior of that group is Loyola's Milton Doyle, a redshirt junior.

"This sets up as the strongest the league's been in a long time with the number of upperclassmen and the way we ended last year with five teams in postseason and everyone winning at least one game in the tournament they were in," said UNI coach Ben Jacobson.

Taking the throne away from Wichita State could have been easier without Baker and VanVleet around.

Baker and VanVleet went to The Final Four as freshmen. Two years ago, the Shockers became the first team in NCAA history to start 35-0. Last year, Wichita State knocked off in-state rival Kansas in an emotional game to reach the NCAA Tournament's Sweet Sixteen.

"It has to be something pretty special to be Ron Baker walking around Wichita, Kansas, right now and Fred VanVleet right now walking around Wichita, Kansas," said Marshall. "You lose some of that and gain some anonymity when you're sitting on the end of a bench in the NBA."

VanVleet, the Valley's Player of the Year as a sophomore, and Baker are two-time all-league first-team selections. Baker showed he was more than capable on the international stage this summer when he played for Team USA in the Pan-American Games, starting all five games and averaging 8.2 points.

Baker averaged a team-high 14.7 points for the 30-5 Shockers last season, while VanVleet checked in at 13.6. VanVleet already holds Wichita State's career assists record (465) and is on pace to become the all-time steals leader, too.

"We don't need to look as this is our final year and if we mess up its gone," said Baker. "We have to look at it as a positive and focus on doing the right things and having fun with it, and good things will come out of it."

Evansville also returns two all-league first-team players in guard D.J. Balentine and Mockevicius. Balentine topped the Valley with a 20.1 scoring average, while Mockevicius was the leading rebounder at 9.9 to go with 12.5 points.

"We lost a lot of games in the last two to three minutes whether we had the lead and let it go or were neck and neck and didn't finish it out," said Balentine. "Coach has been emphasizing that through practice the whole year."

ISU's late-season run a year ago — which included seven wins in the final nine games — ended up just short in the MVC Tournament and National Invitation Tournament with a 50-49 second-round loss at Old Dominion.

"It showed the guys how consistent you have to be and how hard you have to play and how close we are, but close doesn't get you there," said Redbird coach Dan Muller. "You have to do what it takes to earn the chance, and then you have to get it done."

​Follow Jim Benson on Twitter: @pg_benson



Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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