The most hyped team of the 2013-14 college basketball preseason and the most discussed team of its postseason went head-to-head on Sunday afternoon. The reality of the game was even better than advertised: No. 8 seed Kentucky handed previously unbeaten Wichita State its only blemish of the year when Fred VanVleet’s missed three-pointer allowed the Wildcats to prevail, 78-76.
A round-of-32 game isn’t likely to go down as the defining moment of the tourney, and that’s a pity. This game can stand with anything last year’s hard-fought Final Four had to offer—including Wichita State, back when it was an underdog.
Kentucky had four double-digit scorers in its victory over the Shockers, with the Harrison twins combining for 39 points. Julius Randle seemed particularly dialed in, finishing not only with a double-double (his NCAA-best 22nd) but also with a season-high six assists.
For Wichita State, senior Cleanthony Early played the game of his life, scoring 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting to go with seven rebounds in the losing cause. Ron Baker added 20 more points, but it was VanVleet (six assists but just 1-of-6 from the field) who had to take the final shot over the long arm of Willie Cauley-Stein.
When Louisville knocked the Shockers out of last year’s Final Four, the story played out similarly. Then-point guard Malcolm Armstead handed out seven assists but couldn’t find the range on his shot, and Early’s valiant effort (24 points, 10 boards) was squandered by Luke Hancock’s 20-point explosion off the bench.
It didn’t help WSU that many of the problems that plagued Kentucky all year turned to smoke under the bright lights of a high-profile game. The Wildcats’ ball movement was sharper, their defensive rebounding was tougher and their decision-making on offense was better than it’s been all season.
John Calipari, interviewed by CBS after the game, noted the laundry list of problems his immature roster has battled—“bad body language, lack of effort, lack of focus, selfish play”—only to point out that “what these guys have done is continue to grow and get better and you see none of that right now.”
This game isn’t the first time Kentucky has appeared to turn a corner in its season-long development. Much of the same commentary could’ve applied to December’s home win over Louisville, which was followed by a bad loss to Arkansas three games later. For now, though, the young ‘Cats earned their coach’s high praise.
The loss for Wichita State will have some fans questioning the validity of its 35-0 start, largely achieved against unimpressive competition. However, even the legendary 1990-91 UNLV squad (the last team to enter March Madness without a loss) eventually went down, and as with these Shockers, it took a team just as loaded with star power—Christian Laettner’s Duke Blue Devils—to do it.
Indeed, that 1991 Final Four showdown had a lot in common with Wichita State’s loss on Sunday. UNLV’s Anderson Hunt played the Cleanthony Early role (29 points in a losing cause), but Duke had more balance and more great passing, with freshman Grant Hill dishing out five assists much as Randle did on Sunday.
The biggest difference between the games was the size of the stage, and that was primarily a matter of Kentucky’s season-long inconsistency, as USA Today notes:
Historic season by Wichita State. They ran into an under seeded Kentucky team. Unforgettable run over the past 12 months.— Eric Prisbell (@EricPrisbell) March 23, 2014
By going down to the wire against a team full of future NBA players, the Shockers made a stronger impression in defeat than they had done in 18 Missouri Valley wins. This wasn’t just a skilled, experienced group that played smart basketball—it was a team with the athletes and the talent to play with the best in the country, and to be discussed (at 35-1) among the best mid-major teams in history.
Now, Big Blue Nation turns its attention to the Sweet 16, where archrival Louisville awaits. The ‘Cats won the first meeting this year at Rupp Arena, but they’ll be in for a fierce battle on a neutral floor in Indianapolis.
Still, if Randle and the offense can keep their level of execution as high as it was in this game, even the red-hot Cards have plenty to fear. Russ Smith’s speed versus Kentucky’s size should be the best game of the Sweet 16, especially if Sunday’s action is anything to go by.