ST. LOUIS — Kentucky offered the promise of perfection. Wichita State is in pursuit of it.
The teams will meet Sunday for a spot in the Midwest Regional semifinals.
The eighth-seeded Wildcats are stocked with so much NBA talent that some of their fans brazenly printed up T-shirts that read, “40-0.” Kentucky went exactly five days before losing its first game.
Meanwhile, the top-seeded Shockers are a bunch of small-town kids and overlooked prospects desperately trying not to wake up in a dream season. They’re the team that can actually attain 40-0.
Glam against grit, blue-chip against blue-collar. It’s college basketball royalty against the peasants storming the castle in the kind of showdown that makes March so compelling.
“I grew up watching Kentucky basketball. I have some family in the area. I actually made it to a couple of games,” said Ron Baker, part of the Shockers’ Final Four run a year ago. “I don’t know the program that well but when you hear ‘Kentucky,’ you think basketball.”
The Wildcats (25-10) claim eight national championships. They’ve won more games than any other program. Their coach, John Calipari, churns out first-round draft picks like an assembly line.
Prospects like Julius Randle, one of five freshman starters, who had 19 points and 15 boards in a victory over Kansas State Friday.
Or like Aaron Harrison, the Wildcats’ freshman guard, who chipped in 18 points.
“We play to win,” Harrison said. “We’ve had an up-and-down season but we’re coming together.”
That’s just fine with the Shockers (35-0), who relish the opportunity to take down another one of the game’s marquee names. They’ve spent as much time defending their record as building it this season, and they view a win over a surging Kentucky as a chance to quiet the critics.
“They’ve got a lot of people on their team that are projected to be certain picks in the draft, and have certain futures, but at the same time, they have to play the game just like we do,” said Cleanthony Early, who had 23 points in Wichita State’s win over Cal Poly Friday.
“I feel like I can play at any level,” he said, “and I’m pretty sure they feel the same way.”
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall may have provided the best illustration of the differences between the programs when he was asked Saturday about recruiting. Did he even attempt to lure one of Kentucky’s talented freshmen to the old cattle town on the plains?
“I’m not sure,” he said with a smile. “I haven’t checked all the way down to the walk-ons.”
“And a side-note,” Marshall added quickly, “I bet not one player on our team got a form letter from Kentucky. So it’s just a whole different world. And they do what works well for them, and we try to do what works well for us.”
The biggest intrigue on Sunday may just be in seeing which works better, but it’s not the only reason to watch. Here are five more:
ANDREW HARRISON — The other half of Kentucky’s twin backcourt combo hurt his right elbow against Kansas State. He said Saturday he hopes to play, even though it still hurt, but Calipari refused to make any promises. Even if Harrison is merely limited, it could mean trouble against Wichita State’s aggressive defense.
PLAYING ANGRY — Wichita State’s mantra also embodies their style: They’re simply ferocious on defense. “I think we have a style that people like to watch,” Marshall said. “I’ve been told that by folks that I respect, like Bob Knight” — someone who certainly knows about being angry.
SIZING UP KENTUCKY — Kentucky is perhaps the tallest team in college basketball while the Shockers are merely average. But that doesn’t seem to concern them. “There’s a counter for everything,” point guard Fred VanVleet said. “They have NBA-sized guys, a lot of talent, but we’ll have a game-plan ready for them.”
KEEPING IT CLOSE — The Shockers have won their last 10 games by double-digits, and haven’t truly been tested since January. How will they respond if it’s close down the stretch?
PRESSURE OF PERFECTION — Will Wichita State crack under the pressure of its historic run? It’s even one that Calipari was pondering. “You would think at some point they would start feeling the weight of the world,” the Kentucky coach said. “Like, ‘Just wait a minute.’ They’re not. They play to win.”