ST. LOUIS — Kentucky coach John Calipari traversed the country in private planes and helicopters during his courtship of future NBA lottery picks Julius Randle and James Young.
Wichita State didn’t invest a single postage stamp.
“Didn’t even send them a form letter,” said Gregg Marshall, the Shockers coach. “That’s a whole different level of player. We don’t deal with that very often.”
Conversely, National Player of the Year finalist Fred VanVleet never garnered recruiting interest from blue bloods such as Kentucky, instead choosing the Shockers over a handful of mid-major suitors. The story is the same for the rest of his teammates.
Wichita State’s players weren’t good enough to be Wildcats. And Kentucky’s players were too good for the Shockers. All of it makes for a compelling storyline as the teams prepare for Sunday’s NCAA tournament showdown at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Mo., at 2:45 p.m. ET on CBS.
This is Escalade vs. Camry, Four Seasons vs. La Quinta, Capital Grille vs. Ponderosa, Gucci vs. Target.
Or as one Wichita State staff member put it, “the show dogs vs. the mutts.”
Make no mistake, the Shockers take that as a compliment.
“Kentucky has our respect,” VanVleet said. “Hopefully we have theirs.”
How could they not?
Wichita is the only 35-0 team in college basketball history and the first squad in 23 years to enter the NCAA tournament without a defeat.
While freshman-laden Kentucky and its seven McDonald’s All-Americans stumbled to 10 losses and a No. 8 seed in the Big Dance, Wichita State managed to get stronger following a 2012-13 campaign in which it advanced to the Final Four and nearly upset eventual champion Louisville.
In a scenario no one would’ve predicted back in November, the Shockers enter Sunday’s game as anywhere from 3.5- to 5.5-point favorites, per VegasInsider.com, over a squad that entered the season as the No. 1-ranked team in the nation.
“We don’t want to make this game bigger than it is,” Calipari said.
No contest this weekend will capture America’s attention quite like the Shockers vs. Wildcats, who start five freshmen all pegged as potential first-round draft picks.
Despite last year’s Final Four run, Wichita State is still viewed with an odd mixture of respect and skepticism. As praiseworthy as they are for going 35-0, critics of the Shockers will point to a relatively weak nonconference schedule as a reason to doubt Marshall’s squad.
Beating a team as talented as Kentucky, however, would certainly hush a majority of Wichita State’s naysayers.
“They’ve got McDonald’s All-Americans all over the court, and we’ve got Burger King All-Americans,” said assistant coach Steve Forbes. “People said we didn’t play anybody all year long. Now we’ve got a chance to play somebody that will shut ‘em up.”
After treating Cal Poly like a government mule in Friday’s round-of-64 victory, the Shockers watched from their seats behind the basket as Kentucky disposed of Kansas State.
VanVleet’s main takeaway: “They’re huge,” he chuckled.
Yet Wichita State hardly sees playing Kentucky as an overly daunting task. The Shockers clapped and high-fived as the brackets were revealed Sunday, when it became obvious that a tilt with Calipari’s squad was a strong possibility.
And while respectful, Wichita State didn’t seem all that awestruck by Kentucky’s future NBA stars during conversations with media members Friday. Forward Chadrack Lufile responded to a question about Wildcats center Willie Cauley-Stein by saying, “Which one is that? Is he the 7-footer?”
VanVleet said his team needs to keep a tight huddle and focus on the things it can control instead of worrying about making a statement against the Wildcats.
“We don’t want to focus on all of the hype,” he said. “If you get caught up trying to prove a point and sticking your chest out, you’re more inclined to stumble.”
Kentucky doesn’t feature a starter shorter than 6’6”, which should make for an interesting battle against a Wichita State team that prides itself on its defense and physicality. VanVleet was asked if the Shockers planned to “bully” the Wildcats like they have so many other opponents.
“We play tough no matter who we’re playing,” VanVleet said. “But Kentucky is (experienced) enough now to understand what it takes to win. Hopefully we understand a little bit more.”
While Wichita State is one of the most seasoned, cohesive teams in the country, Kentucky has battled inconsistency all season. Part of that is because of the Wildcats’ youth, which could be one of the reasons they’ve been so mediocre defensively. And part of it is because of the stress and pressure that’s been placed upon a freshman class that some hailed as the best in college basketball history.
While Wichita State’s locker room was loose and jovial Saturday, Kentucky’s was more subdued with players’ voices barely audible from more than a few feet away.
Wildcats such as Randle and Young came to Kentucky to win a national title in their one and only season of college basketball. They seemed annoyed answering question after question about a Wichita State walk-on from a two-stoplight town (Ron Baker) and a scoring leader who transferred from a Division III junior college (Cleanthony Early).
“Our goal is to win a national championship,” Randle said softly. “Our next game is against Wichita State. No matter what you’ve done in the past, this is the game.”
It was only three weeks ago when Kentucky lost back-to-back games against Arkansas and South Carolina, two non-NCAA tournament teams. But Calipari’s squad has looked better in recent weeks. It came within a point of defeating SEC regular-season champion Florida in the title game of the SEC tournament and only allowed 49 points in a victory over Kansas State in Friday’s round-of-64 victory.
Point guard Andrew Harrison injured his right (shooting) elbow in the second half of that contest and is questionable for Sunday.
“I’m encouraged,” Randle said. “We’ve taken tremendous strides the last few games. We’ve established how we want to play, and we know what our roles are now. I think we’ll come out and play well.”
The Wildcats better hope so. Otherwise a group of players who announced their college intentions live on ESPN—a team whose talent prompted Kentucky to purchase “40-0” T-shirts back in October—could be finished after just one weekend in the NCAA tournament.
All because of a band of mutts that never garnered much attention.
“If I weren’t playing in this game,” Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison said, “it’d definitely be one I’d want to watch.”