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Wichita State Player All Too Familiar with Kentucky Basketball Folklore

ST. LOUIS — It likely goes without saying, but the basketball world in western Kansas is a small one indeed.

Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein and Wichita State’s Ron Baker both come from it, and though the two aren’t close personally, their paths have intersected a number of times over the years. It will intersect again Sunday, when the No. 8 Wildcats take on the undefeated Shockers, the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest region, for a spot in the Sweet 16.

Marlene Stein and Ranae Baker, the two players’ mothers, were basketball teammates at St. Mary of the Plains College, a now-defunct school in Dodge City, Kan.

Cauley-Stein grew up in Spearville and Baker grew up in Scott City, 100 miles apart from each other. They didn’t play on the same AAU teams—Baker didn’t play much on the circuit and only then played for a small-time team out of Wichita, whereas Cauley-Stein played for a more renowned team out of Kansas City—but they did play a few times on that circuit, Baker said.

And now their paths will cross again Sunday in St. Louis.

(SEE ALSO: Can Kentucky overcome Wichita State's offensive balance? KY Forward)

Baker is no stranger to Kentucky basketball. He has some distant cousins who live in Frankfort, Wildcats fans who made the dual-purpose trip to St. Louis to cheer on family and get another glimpse at the Wildcats after attending a few games at Rupp Arena this season. Even Baker’s dad was a Kentucky fan when Ron was growing up, he said.

Baker’s dad, Neil, made hunting trips to Kentucky, and he watched the Wildcats on TV when Ron was a youth. Ron’s team was Kansas, and when he was growing up, the Wildcats and Jayhawks played a handful of games against each other.

“I was kind of cheering for KU, and my dad would say, ‘No, no, no, no. We’re cheering for Kentucky, son. Kentucky.’ It’s when Tubby Smith was there. My dad was a Tubby fan,” he said.

He clarified that although he watched Kentucky’s games and was a fan of Jodie Meeks when he was younger, he never considered himself a Kentucky fan even when his dad implored it of him.

“Ah, just when we were watching the games together I told my dad I was rooting for Kentucky, but truly I was rooting for KU,” he said.

The association of Kentucky and basketball was always there for Baker, which is one reason he said Sunday’s game is such an important opportunity; of course, others drown that particular reason out: Wichita State is undefeated and playing with that on the line, and because this is the NCAA Tournament, the next team to lose goes home for good.

“You think of Kentucky, you think of basketball,” Baker said. “For us to play them this time of year, this much importance and a lot on the table, it’s great for our university and great for us as individuals.

“When you think of Wichita State, you think of Kansas. Wind, dirt, wheat,” he said. “You know, the past couple of years, I’d like to think people start to think about basketball.”

Written by James Pennington for KY Forward whose coverage of UK Athletics is sponsored by Republic Bank

Photo: Ron Baker/via WSU