ST. LOUIS – First, the basics: Kentucky defeated Kansas State 56-49 Friday night in the NCAA tournament.
But while the game lacked both drama and artistic merit – neither team shot 40 percent from the field or 30 percent from 3-point range – it performed the vital service of setting us up for a Sunday game of great promise and intrigue.
Kentucky, the mega-talented team that is now emerging as a serious threat after a most imperfect season, vs. Wichita State, the up-from-the-bootstraps mid-major that actually has authored a perfect season. One program on a never-ending quest for respect vs. a program with so much respect it was voted preseason No. 1 despite coming off an NIT year and working a near-complete roster makeover. One team that was hyped to go 40-0 vs. a team that actually still has a chance at it.
"It's kind of ironic," Kentucky guard Jarrod Polson said. "But it's 0-0 now."
This was a potential matchup that jumped off the bracket when it was released Selection Sunday. CBS execs were undoubtedly chest-bumping late Friday, now that it has come to be. The winningest program of all time bumps into the winningest program of 2013-14.
After demolishing Cal Poly in their NCAA tourney opener earlier Friday, the Shockers were pronouncing themselves underdogs for Sunday. Which is pretty much how they roll.
They're dead wrong by seeding, of course, as a No. 1 taking on a No. 8. And that will most likely be the case in Las Vegas as well, where Wichita State figures to be at least a slight favorite.
But in terms of program prestige, the underdog role remains with the Shockers. Ask around the Kentucky locker room and there wasn't a lot of knowledge about Wichita State.
Wildcats point guard Andrew Harrison – whose hyperextended right elbow could be a significant factor Sunday – said he hadn't seen a minute of the Shockers until catching part of their game against Cal Poly. Swingman James Young didn't even watch that much – he said he hasn't seen them at all. Polson said he's caught a little bit of Wichita State on TV – but the fact is they're not on TV near as often as Kentucky.
"I've watched them," Polson said. "I watched them make their tournament run last year, and it's basically the same guys. We know they're the real deal. It's definitely going to be a huge challenge for us.
"They're the No. 1 seed, so I guess there's more pressure on them. But at the end of the day it's going to be all about coming out and battling."
Kentucky was more than prepared to shut down offensively challenged Kansas State Friday, closing off open looks at the basket with their extreme length. That size will be a major factor Sunday as well for a Wichita State team that will be smaller at every position on the floor.
"I thought their perimeter defense was way better than just watching some of the games on film," K-State coach Bruce Weber said. "Those dudes fought through screens and got to us. They not only have size inside, but the Harrisons [Andrew and Aaron] are 6-5, 6-6, [James] Young is long. … It makes it tough on you."
Said Kansas State guard Marcus Foster: "Athletically, I thought they compared with Kansas, but they were much better. One through five, they are very athletic and much more physical than we thought."
Wichita State cannot afford a similarly intimidating revelation Sunday, but it may be unavoidable. The Shockers simply haven't played anyone nearly as physically imposing as Kentucky since Tennessee Dec. 14. The adjustments to that size will have to happen quickly.
But Kentucky coach John Calipari knows something about being on that side of a marquee matchup like this – with a great team but not necessarily a great program, matched up against a blueblood. He knows the motivation that comes with that territory.
"I have been in a few of those," he said. "You have to remember now, I only got a BCS job five years ago. I was at UMass and Memphis trying to take on the big dogs. So you have a chip on your shoulder. …
"It's us against the world and nobody thinks we're going to do this, and now you're going against Kentucky, who had a good season but not a great season. I've been there. I've been on the other side. I haven't been on this side going against it."
He will be Sunday. You may want to tune in and watch.
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