Three Hits: Kentucky holds off Kansas State, looks to Wichita State

Guard Andrew Harrison and the Kentucky Wildcats were held below 60 points for just the third time this season in a 56-49 NCAA Tournament win over Kansas State.

Scott Rovak/Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky could not run away from Kansas State in the Midwest Region’s 8-9 matchup, but coach John Calipari’s talented young team held the upper hand for most of the game and walked away with a grueling 56-49 win … and into a date with the No. 1 seed: undefeated Wichita State. Here are three quick observations following the game.

This was far from a consistent team effort, one of those Kentucky games where everywhere you look there’s another freshman or sophomore pulling off some abstract athletic feat that lead to 10-point leads, then 20, then 30. This wasn’t one of those games. Kansas State coach Bruce Weber and his team scratched and clawed throughout — even when the game was out of reach, the Big-12’s Wildcats kept knocking down 3s and calling timeouts, refusing to relent — holding Kentucky to 38 percent shooting and forcing 15 turnovers.

However, Calipari still has Julius Randle, the most consistent force in an inconsistent group.

Randle, the star freshman forward who is projected to be one of the top picks in the upcoming NBA Draft, finished with 19 points and 15 rebounds. Sp, he continues to average a double-double. Randle was primarily helped by fellow freshman Aaron Harrison, who poured in 18.

The rest of the team combined for 19 points.

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The Wildcats were suffocating defensively, though, aided by 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein’s effort off the bench — eight rebounds (five offensive), four blocks and four steals in 28 minutes. With all that offensive talent, Kentucky won’t lose many games holding opponents to 36 percent shooting and 49 points. Of course, Kansas State made its mark on defensive this season and were a fairly mediocre bunch when it came to scoring the basketball, so give credit where it is due but be mindful of the task’s difficulty.

It was a solid effort by Kentucky, certainly good enough to notch a tournament win — more than some other blue-chip programs could say after the first full round of games — but it raises the question: How much more will the SEC runner-ups need on Sunday?

What’s a primetime NCAA Tournament matchup without a narrative? The selection committee must have asked itself the same question as it pitted an improving and dangerous Kentucky team as an underrated 8-seed and a potential (OK, probable) Round of 32 matchup for the 35-0 Wichita State Shockers.

And in case you are behind on said narrative, here’s the shorthand version: the Kentucky Wildcats, a team stocked with NBA-level talent all over their roster, entered the season with 40-0 hype, sparked by Calipari commenting that it’s a career goal of his. But it was the Shockers of the Missouri Valley Conference that stood as the only undefeated team at the end of the regular season. Kentucky, on the other hand, dropped nine games. Sunday’s meeting brings an opportunity for Wichita State to cement its legitimacy on the national stage (it played the 131st-ranked strength of schedule, according to Ken Pomeroy) and it brings a shot at redemption for Kentucky, which finished its pre-Dance slate strong by logging two SEC Tournament wins and taking No. 1 overall Florida down to the wire.

Ignoring the recruiting class rankings and raw talent, Calipari’s club will have its hands full with one of the most efficient teams in the country.

Behind stars Fred Van Vleet and Cleanthony Early, the Shockers rank top-10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency following its dismantling of 16-seed Cal Poly, 64-37. There’s very little they don’t do well. Offensively, they rank in the top-65 in effective field goal percentage, turnover percentage, offensive rebounding and free throw rate. Defensively, it’s pretty much the same thing, except they do not force turnovers at a high level. They rarely play outside themselves and they simply refuse to relent, grinding opponents into submission.

Kentucky’s performances swing back and forth from inconsistent to spectacular, but the talent is there to challenege any team. One of the biggest teams nationally, they will force Wichita State to hit its outside shots and to be extremely active on the boards, as Randle, Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson really clean up on the offensive glass (second nationally). The Shockers will challenge the young Wildcats to stay in the game a full 40 minutes mentally, to stay aggressive offensively and sound defensively in their assignments. That’s not the type of season its been in Lexington, but all Calipari needs from his guys is 40 minutes. If they can do that, who knows.

Either way, the narrative is there. And this tournament has lived up to every bit of its hype this far.

A day after San Diego State coach Steve Fisher railed on the NCAA and its enforcement of sending teams home the night of a tournament loss, the Kentucky-Kansas State game gave college basketball another reason to turn a spotlight on a ridiculous rule. This one came before a whistle even sounded. Kansas State received a letter-of-the-law penalty when a walk-on lightly dunked a basketball during pregame warmups. Somewhere deep in the heart of the NCAA rulebook, that constitutes allowing the opponent to shoot two free throws before the opening tip.

The Wildcats made one of their two free throws, meaning the score was 1-0 with 20 minutes still on the game clock — the earliest a team has ever scored in NCAA Tournament history. Here’s the innocuous dunk from walk-on Brian Rohleder (GIF):

It’s an absurd rule on its face, but to strictly enforce it in such a high-stakes environment against a player who never plays — a player running in an NCAA Tournament layup drill for the first time in his career — is yet another example of officials refusing to show any sort of discretion. There’s a way to enforce the NCAA’s wish of not turning pregame warmups into dunk contests (which would be entertaining and preferable for fans, for what it’s worth), without becoming the Fun Police. Kentucky eventually won by seven points, but officials injecting themselves into the game’s narrative is rarely, if ever, a good thing.

All in all, a ridiculous rule but an even worse decision from this officiating crew. A simple warning would have sufficed. Show some discretion.