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Wildcats, Shockers experience role reversal

ST. LOUIS -- Wichita State backcourt mates Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton pondered the question together with forward Darius Carter.

As young fans of college basketball, what did you think of Kentucky?

Baker often watched the Wildcats, he said. His dad was a fan.

"When you hear Kentucky," said Baker, who hails from Scott City, Kan., "you think of basketball."

Cotton, from Marietta, Ga., recalls admiring Jodie Meeks, who attended high school in suburban Atlanta and then starred at Kentucky.

"As a fan of basketball," Cotton said, "you’re going to watch Kentucky."

Carter, from Akron, Ohio, grew up an Ohio State fan, though he was "very aware" of the Wildcats.

So were any of you recruited by UK, even so much as receive a form letter?

“No.”

“No, sir.”

“No. I wasn’t, either.”

And there you have the first layer of irony in the delicious NCAA tournament matchup on Sunday at the Scottrade Center between Wichita State, seeded No. 1 in the Midwest Region and the first team ever to reach 35-0, and eighth-seeded Kentucky, the powerhouse program that began this season with more McDonald’s All-Americans than starting positions and a vision to go 40-0.

The Wildcats are 25-10 and playing better of late, though their performance in shooting 38 percent on Friday in a 56-49 win over Kansas State looked disjointed at times. Additionally, freshman point guard Andrew Harrison is questionable to play against the Shockers because of an elbow injury suffered late in the round of 64 win.

"At this point," Kentucky coach John Calipari said, "I just don’t want my team to make this game bigger than it is."

Imagine that, Calipari concerned that Kentucky -- which won its eighth national title in 2012 -- might make too much of a meeting with Wichita State, the Missouri Valley Conference champion.

Yes, the Shockers made an unexpected run to the Final Four as a No. 9 seed last season before losing to eventual champion Louisville, but shouldn’t it be coach Gregg Marshall’s players who peer across the court on Sunday with a desire to make a statement?

After all, Marshall, too, holds UK history in reverence. He watched Jack Givens score 41 points in the 1978 title-game win over Duke and recalls fondly his trips to Rupp Arena as a coach at Winthrop and Marshall.

Marshall joked that with the help of a constitutional amendment, he could schedule a game in Wichita against Kentucky.

The Wichita State coach said he didn’t attempt to recruit any of Kentucky’s five starting freshmen. Probably no one else on its roster, either.

"I haven’t checked all the way down with the walk-ons," he said.

According to Marshall, Wichita State does not recruit even "the second level down from Kentucky."

A year ago, Marshall said, he couldn’t have identified Julius Randle, the Wildcats’ star power forward out of Dallas who signed with Kentucky over Texas, Kansas and Florida.

"It’s just a whole different level of recruiting," Marshall said. "They do what works well for them, and we try to do what works well for us."

It’s working.

To extend its success against an opponent bigger and likely more athletic at four positions, the margin for Wichita State error grows slimmer than normal. Marshall and his players mentioned in separate interviews the importance of rebounding well against Kentucky.

That's quite a task. The Wildcats ranked fifth in the nation in the regular season, averaging 41.3 rebounds against the nation’s No. 2 schedule. Wichita State was 25th in rebounding with a schedule strength of 111th.

On Friday, UK dominated Kansas State on the glass 40-28. Randle grabbed 15 boards to go with a game-high 19 points.

"I’ve never seen a 19-year-old as big as [him] in my life," said Baker, the Wichita State sophomore of the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Randle.

Even Kansas’ Bill Self, set to coach the second-seeded Jayhawks against No. 10 seed Stanford in the first game Sunday in St. Louis, which tips at 12:15 p.m. ET, recognizes the intrigue of Kentucky-Wichita State.

"It could be very cool," Self said.

"You have Wichita State, who has had the year. Nobody can deny that. They had as good a year [as] college basketball has seen in recent memory. And then you have one of the truest bluebloods. … It should be a fun game."

Just don’t paint the Shockers as an underdog. They don’t feel like the little guys, and the Wildcats know it.

"You know," Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein said, "Wichita State has a bunch of swagger right now."

Cauley-Stein, raised in Spearville, Kan., 150 miles west of Wichita, moved for high school to Olathe, Kan., outside of Kansas City. He said he knew little about Wichita State until its recent run of success.

Quite the contrast to the Shockers and their awareness of big, bold Kentucky.