In the biggest game for Rutgers basketball in years during a season full of them, Geo Baker delivered for his team yet again when they needed him most. In completing the program’s first 20 win season in 37 years on Saturday, Baker continued to cement his reputation as one of the biggest shot makers in all of college basketball.
After the game, Baker shared his mentality at the end of games, stating, “It’s amazing. It’s not even really putting the team on my back. That’s my role. Everyone has a role on this team and my role is to get the ball at the end of the game and make a play. I’m very comfortable in that role, win or lose. I want that. I want the ball at the end of the game.”
This season, Baker has made big shots in the final minutes of victories over Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, and now Purdue. Saturday’s performance was the most impressive, as it came on the road and included the end of regulation and overtime, ending with a stone cold jumper to put Rutgers up three points with 11 seconds remaining. It changed the last possession for Purdue and made them attempt a three-pointer. They missed and shot just 24% for the game from deep. The Scarlet Knights won a crucial road game in a place they’ve been embarrassed the previous three seasons.
Baker’s season has not been all rainbows and lollipops. After breaking his left thumb around the new year, he missed three games, followed by a return that in hindsight was too soon. His first seven games back from injury, Baker averaged just 5.0 points per game on just 10 of 45 shot attempts (22.2%). He bottomed out in the loss at Maryland, not scoring in just 19 minutes of play and sitting on the bench down the stretch. It was fair to be worried, not just about Baker, but what it meant for Rutgers in a season that was in danger of slipping away.
With the Scarlet Knights trailing by 11 points at the half at home against Northwestern, panic was setting in across the RAC and the entire fan base. Rutgers had trailed by as much as 18 points, but when Baker hit a jumper for his first points of the game right before the halftime buzzer, there was hope he could finally regain his stride. As RU fell behind by 15 points three minutes into the second half, Baker knocked down a huge three-pointer and the game changed. He led a furious comeback that resulted in a dramatic, four point overtime win that in essence saved its NCAA Tournament chances by avoiding a resume killing defeat. Baker finished with 25 points on 10 of 17 shooting, 6 rebounds and 5 assists. He made as many shots in that game as he had in his previous seven.
Including that performance, Baker has now scored double digits in seven of his last eight games, averaging 15.0 points on 47% shooting, including 34% from three-point range. Those aren’t All-American stats by any means, but the way he has elevated his game and come through in the clutch makes him as valuable a player to Rutgers as any team in college basketball. He also passed the 1,000 point scoring mark for his career against Michigan during this stretch.
It’s more than his statistical contributions that define the impact that Baker has made on this program. His leadership has been invaluable as well. When he returned from injury, he came off the bench for those eight straight games and by all accounts remained the same positive force he always has been. His willingness to come back before he was likely fully healed was another statement in what type of leader he is for this team.
A week before this special season began, I spoke to Baker and asked him about what he learned from the previous year and how it helped him prepare for this one. He was matter of fact in saying, “I’m just ready to win. That’s all I’ve been thinking about since last season ended. I’ve been trying to sacrifice as much as a I can. Doing things differently, because obviously what we were doing before wasn’t working. We have to figure out a different way to win. I think all the guys are on the same page. We are ready to win. We are all ready to take the next step.”
Part of being a great leader is being humble enough to sacrifice certain things and Baker had done that. His confidence has also made him a great leader as well though. When asked about his personal goals for the season, he stated, “Personal goals are that I just want to be the best player I can be. If I do all the right things, I know the season will take care of itself. We are going to make history as a team and I’m going to make history as a player. We talk about it everyday. Our mission is to dance. We want to make history. We would be remembered forever here and every player wants to do that.”
Holding just one other reported high major offer out of high school (Kansas State) and ranked the 414th prospect in his national recruiting class by 247 Sports, Baker came to Rutgers to prove the doubters wrong. He believed in Steve Pikiell, who in turn believed that Baker could be a catalyst in turning the worst high major program in America around. The collective chips on their shoulders are bigger than the RAC itself. Together, they are leading Rutgers through a history making season, which is still a long way from being over. How far they go will depend on the entire team, but Baker’s shot making and leadership will be what drives them towards even greater success.
Update: On Monday, Baker become the first Rutgers player to earn Third Team All-Big Ten honors, as he was selected by the coaches.