The Kentucky Wildcats fell well short of preseason expectations and are an eighth seed in the 2014 NCAA tournament as a result. But with their season on the line in the midst of March Madness, coach John Calipari's squad rose to the occasion and defeated Kansas State 56-49 in Friday's second-round game at St Louis' Scottrade Center.
There is no denying the talent on this Kentucky squad; it's just been a matter of putting it all together. Now Kentucky will try to further prove itself in a tough Midwest region in the round of 32, as the top-seeded, undefeated Wichita State Shockers are on deck.
ESPN's Jeff Goodman is excited about the impending matchup:
With one of the most heralded freshman classes in history, it's been a struggle for all the blue-chip players in Big Blue Nation to find a rhythm all year long. To Kentucky's credit, the chemistry issues haven't been due to a lack of effort, and the Wildcats played like a middle-of-the-pack tourney team in terms of hustle and determination on Friday.
Calipari still shouldn't have been doubted even at this juncture of the tournament given his impressive track record in Lexington, as ESPN Stats & Info alluded to:
A big rebounding edge (40-28) proved to be the difference, and freshman star Julius Randle led the way with a double-double for Kentucky in putting up a game-high 19 points and pulling down 15 boards. Kentucky Athletics' official Twitter account noted the historical significance of Randle's latest standout performance:
Aaron Smith of Rivals.com noted how Kentucky was able to generate a ton of second-chance opportunities, which was critical considering how poorly its offense was shooting the ball for much of the game:
Sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein made just one of four shots from the field for two points, but he made a massive impact on defense with four steals and four blocks. That helped Kentucky set the tone and prevent Kansas State from clawing back into this one.
Credit is due to the perimeter defense Kentucky deployed. When Bruce Weber's bunch had to settle for outside shots, they were well-contested, and it led to KSU shooting well below 40 percent from the floor.
ESPN's Dick Vitale credited the victors' overall size as a big reason for their victory:
It has to be frustrating for Kentucky's loaded lineup, including twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison, to score just 56 points, but the Wildcats nevertheless did what was necessary to grind out a win and advance.
While Aaron played well in scoring 18 points, point guard Andrew suffered what looked to be a hyperextended elbow late, adding injury to the insult of playing rather poorly in scoring seven points on 1-of-6 shooting. Andrew also had six turnovers to offset his five assists, and CBSSports.com's Jeff Borzello thought the ailing elbow looked rather serious:
Cauley-Stein talked about the attitude his squad had in wanting to prove their detractors wrong before the game.
"[We wanted to] prove that we are a team," said Cauley-Stein, per Kentucky.com's Jerry Tipton. "A lot of talk is we play like a bunch of individuals. You know, we're not. We're a really good team. We just needed time to figure out what's best for our team."
As the game was winding down, Kyle Tucker of The Courier-Journal noted how well Kentucky responded to adversity and every punch its Big 12 foe threw on the evening:
It was a mostly ugly game. Kansas State could never manage to mount a legitimate comeback charge in a rather nightmarish outing, and its own freshman stud Marcus Foster connected on just one of seven three-pointers en route to 15 points.
Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports summarized KSU's plight appropriately, and Tucker added a staggering statistic regarding how KSU had fared against top-tier competition:
Kentucky showed perhaps its greatest sign of promise in the SEC tournament final in losing by only one point to Florida, who is the top overall seed in March Madness. That suggests Calipari is getting through to his players, and they're fully beginning to realize that they can't coast through and survive on their natural abilities to achieve what they're expected to.
There was palpable pressure on Kentucky to take care of business here and at least set up a potential showdown with Wichita State. Kansas State had less pressure on it as the underdog and would have made its round of 64 opponent look like an outright failure in 2013-14 with a win.
While the Shockers have built a program dependent on returning core players, Kentucky has attempted to reload every year with stupendous recruiting classes that go to the NBA after one season. A fascinating clash of program-building paradigms will be one of the most entertaining games on Sunday.