INDIANAPOLIS — Kentucky knew it would have a battle on its hands with No. 10 seed Wichita State in the second round of the South Region on Sunday.
Narrowly avoiding upset, the No. 2 seed Wildcats were able to outlast the Shockers for a gutsy 65-62 win as they advanced to the Sweet 16 in Memphis. The Wildcats have now made the Sweet 16 in six of eight years under head coach John Calipari as he returns to the FedEx Forum next weekend for the first time since coaching Memphis in 2009.
In a rematch of a memorable 2014 NCAA Tournament second-round matchup that saw No. 1 seed Wichita State’s unbeaten season end at the hands Kentucky, this matchup nearly lived up to the immense hype of that first game.
The players on the floor might have been different from the first matchup in St. Louis but both teams traded late shots and a freshman-led Kentucky team got a stop on the final possession to advance past Wichita State.
But there is one big difference between Kentucky’s win in 2014 and its win in 2017.
The 2017 Wildcats won a slowed-down, Wichita State-style game. The 2014 Kentucky win over the Shockers was an up-and-down thriller scored in the 70s that suited the Wildcats’ style of play as future pros on both teams had big performances.
That distinction is very important for this year’s Wildcats because this is the type of close, slowed-down win against an elite team that shows Kentucky might be serious about a national title run. Past Kentucky teams, and even the Wildcats from earlier this season, might not have won a game that suited Wichita State’s strengths in a grind-it-out game.
This Kentucky team can win games in a number of different ways. The Wildcats won this game even though Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox were held to only 14 points each on a combined 8-for-23 effort.
“We’ve gotten a lot better; more mature,” freshman Wenyen Gabriel said. “Playing in a lot of close games and getting better as a team, I don’t know if we would have won that game a couple of months ago. But I know we won today and it’s a great time of year for us to be winning games like this.”
Kentucky’s slowed-down win over Wichita State should give the Wildcats a lot of confidence about facing anyone left in the tournament. Next week’s Sweet 16 game is a perfect potential case study.
Kentucky will have to play either UCLA or Cincinnati. Those two teams are nearly polar opposites. While the Bruins play at a breakneck pace and have one of the best offenses in college basketball, the Bearcats want to slow it down and wear out opponents with physical play.
Both opponents will undoubtedly be tough for Kentucky — UCLA won at Rupp Arena in a close game earlier this season — but the Wildcats feel like Monk is rounding into form after a strong finish in the Wichita State game. If Monk returns to Supernova form and Fox and freshman big man Bam Adebayo continue to play as well as they’ve played down the stretch then the Wildcats have a chance to cut down the nets at the end of this journey.
“I’m really proud of the guys. Hard game to play. They really grind it out. The offensive rebound, I thought we rebounded with them, did good stuff,” Calipari said.
“It was great to have Malik back. Haven’t seen him for a while. He’s on that path, still not all the way back, but he’s on the path that we need him on. And these guys up here, they’re young, but they have a will to win and play with courage and are skilled basketball players and great kids who share. So proud of them.”
During a weekend that saw defending champion Villanova and hated rival Louisville fall in the second round, Kentucky is glad to be moving on from Wichita State.
The Wildcats won’t be wishing to play another Gregg Marshall team in the tournament anytime soon, but they’re hoping this second-round win propels Kentucky to the national-championship game like it did in 2014.