Jullius Randle went into full-blown beast mode, finishing with 19 points and 15 boards as No. 8 Kentucky knocked off No. 9 Kansas State 56-49 in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
Aaron Harrison chipped in with 18 points for UK. Randle and Harrison combined to shoot 13-for-22 from the floor. The rest of the Kentucky roster went just 6-for-28, but it didn’t matter. Kansas State’s offense was inept against a suddenly stingy Kentucky team that gave up just 0.831 PPP to the Wildcats.
For those that aren’t well versed in tempo-free stats, that’s really, really good and ranks among the best defensive performances this season for Kentucky.
And what it does is vault the Wildcats into what may be the most intriguing Round of 32 matchup in the history of college basketball.
I’m not exaggerating, either.
No. 1 Wichita State vs. No. 8 Kentucky on Sunday afternoon will be the most hyped up game of the weekend, and it’s not hard to figure out why.
Kentucky entered the season projected as the No. 1 team in the country, as they were blessed with a roster that includes more potential lottery picks than Wichita State has had in program history. There was so much hype surrounding what many considered to be the great recruiting class of all-time that Kentucky that there were actual, intelligent people that thought the Wildcats had a chance to go 40-0 this season.
That dream died on the fifth day of the regular season, but it is still intact for Wichita State, who has now won their first 35 games of the season. The Shockers don’t have any blue-chippers. Cleanthony Early was a sought after Junior College recruit and Fred Van Vleet was on a couple of top 100 lists as a senior, but overall, Wichita State is made up of a group of blue-collar, overlooked guys that have a chip the size of Koch Arena on their shoulder.
In other words, their roster makeup and the base they recruit from couldn’t be more different than Kentucky’s.
And yet here they are, squaring off in a Round of 32 game. How hard would you have laughed if I told you back in November that a game between Wichita State and Kentucky featured the Shockers, and not the Wildcats, as the No. 1 seed?
That’s not even the most intriguing story line here, either, as both teams — and coaches — will be under an enormous amount of pressure.
If Coach Cal, for a second straight season, fails to get this Kentucky team to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, the pressure-cooker that is Lexington, Kentucky, is only going to get more intense. Saying that Calipari is on the hot seat would be incorrect, but his job certainly would not be as easy or as safe as it was two seasons ago.
And he’s got it easy.
Gregg Marshall’s team is in a position where a loss to the preseason No. 1 team in the country would essentially nullify everything that they were able to accomplish this season. Kentucky is the best team that the Shockers will have faced this season. Losing to them would only further the narrative that Wichita State’s record is a result of who, not how, they played.
Should I mention that the game is going to be played is a raucous, sold out Scottrade Center in Saint Louis?
This is going to be fun.