Take a blind test of these Midwest Regional opponents. Don’t consider their history, reputation or uniform style. Know only their season achievements.
The top seed is embarking on a monumental season, the first in college basketball history to win its first 35 games. The No. 8 seed didn’t win its conference and has lost 10 games.
The NCAA Tournament is assured of these matchups every March, and some are made memorable by an upset.
But to color in the uniform and understand the circumstance is to suggest Wichita State vs. Kentucky on some levels promises more drama and theater than any other NCAA Tournament game. Not just in the round of 32, but any game on the bracket, including the championship.
It’s classic David vs. Goliath, except a case can be made for both programs in those roles.
Who is the behemoth? Wichita State, perfect in the present, or storied Kentucky, whose fans were so energized about the Wildcats in the preseason that T-shirts reading “40-0” and “The Pursuit of Perfection” were printed?
Who is the gritty overachiever? The Shockers, who despite coming off a Final Four appearance opened the season ranked outside the top 15? Or Kentucky, which bids for a Sweet 16 spot with an all-freshman starting lineup?
The programs are two college basketball models. Wichita State, like most, recruits prospects to be shaped into useful players as they mature.
By contrast, Kentucky is the essence of a one-and-done culture. Sign the very best, and sink or swim with them for one year with the likes of Julius Randle this season and Anthony Davis two years ago, when the Wildcats won their eighth NCAA championship. In all, nine Kentucky freshmen have been first-round NBA Draft selections since coach John Calipari arrived in 2009, the most of any program.
Shockers coach Gregg Marshall broke down the programs’ difference in recruiting approach.
“We didn’t even send a form letter to any of them,” Marshall said.
Not even the walk-ons, Marshall said. He didn’t know who Kentucky’s freshmen were before this year because the Shockers don’t live in that world.
“People ask me what do you think of Julius Randle,” Marshall said. “I didn’t even know what he looked like until this current season because we don’t recruit those players.”
And the converse is true.
“No,” said Ron Baker, when asked if he was recruited by Kentucky.
“No, sir,” Tekele Cotton answered.
“No, I wasn’t either,” Darius Carter replied.
But they all watched plenty of Kentucky on television, in this and in past years. Same with Marshall, whose memory of the Wildcats dates to the 1970s. Baker, from Scott City, Kan., said his father grew up admiring the famed program.
“You hear ‘Kentucky,’ you think of basketball,” Baker said.
The Wildcats won’t get caught in a disrespect swirl. Wichita State may not resonate in the Kentucky consciousness, but what program would? The Wildcats have won more games than any program in college basketball history.
So, it’s not expected that Kentucky’s players would be familiar with Wichita State’s roster, even though the Shockers go into today’s game with future NBA talent, albeit not freshmen.
Even the Wildcats’ sophomore center, Willie Cauley-Stein, who grew up in Spearville, Kan., about 150 miles west of Wichita, didn’t know much about the Shockers.
“I didn’t really pay attention to them growing up,” Cauley-Stein said.
But he learned something. It turns out his mother, Marlene Stein, played college basketball with Baker’s mother, Ranae, at St. Mary’s of the Plains in Dodge City.
“It’s a small world,” Cauley-Stein said. “I would expect something like that because to come from southwestern Kansas everybody really knows everybody.”
Calipari wasn’t always a one-and-done guy. He coached seniors and juniors at his previous college spots, Memphis and Massachusetts, although his best players at both stops left early: Derrick Rose after his freshman year in Memphis in 2008 and Marcus Camby after his junior year at Massachusetts in 1996.
“I’ve been on the other side,” Calipari said. “For 20 years, I was at a non-BCS school.”
Calipari sees Wichita State’s most admirable quality as the ability to handle the perfect run.
“You would think at some point they would start feeling the weight of the world,” Calipari said.
That hasn’t happened. In fact, the Shockers have won their last nine games — including Friday’s NCAA opener against Cal Poly — by double digits.
But today is different. The Shockers haven’t played a team as good as a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament since December, and it’s doubtful they’ve seen a program in recent years with as much future NBA talent.
But it’s a certainty that Kentucky has never played a 35-0 team. Nobody has, but Calipari says he’s resisting that story line.
“At this point, I don’t want to make the game bigger than it is,” Calipari said.
On this, he’ll fail. It’s the biggest game of the tournament.