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:
Kentucky vs. Wichita State on Sunday. Atmosphere here in STL should be ridiculous.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) March 22, 2014
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:
Kentucky improves to 14-2 in NCAA Tournament under John Calipari— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 22, 2014
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:
The latest put-back by Julius Randle gives him 12 points, 10 rebounds and the UK freshman record for double-doubles (21) by himself.— Kentucky Athletics (@UKAthletics) March 22, 2014
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:
Kentucky getting the advantage where it needed to. Have now grabbed 13 of a possible 28 offensive rebounds (46.4%).— Aaron Smith (@ASmithRivals) March 22, 2014
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:
Kentucky D bothering KSU - the size is a major factor!— Dick Vitale (@DickieV) March 22, 2014
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:
That looked painful for Andrew Harrison. Oy.— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) March 22, 2014
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:
Fourth straight game, Kentucky has answered every run, finished strong. So the dream matchup, from a storyline perspective, is almost set.— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_CJ) March 22, 2014
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 has stopped scoring, but it doesn't matter. K-State can't shoot, pass or dribble at present.— Pat Forde (@YahooForde) March 22, 2014
Kansas State played 15 games against NCAA Tournament teams this season, averaged 72.9 points in those games. Scored 49 on Kentucky.— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_CJ) March 22, 2014
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.