Here are three things we gleaned from Kentucky’s 78-76 victory over top-seeded and previously undefeated Wichita State — an epic Round of 32 clash that truly had the feel of a regional final.
It’s scary how good the young Wildcats can be when everyone is sharing the ball on offense and the defense exhibits sustainable intensity on nearly every possession.
That’s how Kentucky handled things on Sunday, earning perhaps the program’s most storied "upset" in NCAA tournament history. Think about that for a second.
Take Wichita State’s last possession, for example: Coach Gregg Marshall had the luxury of two full timeouts to design a final Shockers play that required only two points in 3.2 seconds.
And yet, WSU never really threatened to score, with guard Fred VanVleet (four points, six assists) badly misfiring on a potential game-winner from 25 feet out, with nary a look toward Cleanthony Early’s direction.
As an aside, it’s a little curious that Wichita State didn’t run the final play through Anthony (31 points), since he kick-started just about every half-court possession in the final 10 minutes. In fact, his hot shooting (12 of 17 from the field) may have been the one that thing kept the Shockers within shouting distance throughout the latter half.
Overall, though, even when the Wildcats trailed by nine during two crucial junctures (late in the first half, early in the second half), the club never retreated to a pattern of lazy shots or poor interior defense.
Guards Aaron Harrison (19 points) and James Young (13 points, eight rebounds) knocked down open three-pointers during the respective rallies, and Julius Randle and guard Andrew Harrison (Aaron’s twin brother) were essentially unstoppable when driving hard to the basket.
Let’s extend some of the above kudos to sophomore guard Ron Baker, as well. In the final 9:57, Baker and Early accounted for Wichita State’s last 21 points, with each playmaker hitting two triples during that span.
Simply put, whenever the Shockers struggled to hit a cutter flashing to the basket in half-court sets, Early was then entrusted with the task of rescuing the club. And he responded with 21 points in the final 20 minutes, including a three-pointer just 12 points into the second half.
As such, Louisville and Kentucky fans might play the waiting game for booking hotels, depending on the results of Friday’s clash … which should get a lot of mid-week media hype, both locally and nationally.
Speaking of Louisville and Kentucky, next Friday shall mark the second time in three years the two powerhouses have met in the NCAA tournament. The clubs also faced one another in back-to-back tourneys in 1983 (regional final) and 1984 (Sweet 16 round).
Of their last three NCAA meetings (1983-84, 2012), the Wildcats have emerged victorious each time.