Today is the first time in a long time that Shocker fan has felt any uncertainty. I mean way down in your gut, makes you toss and turn, not sure how it’s going to turn out-- doubt. For the last three months the Shockers have pretty much called their score against an array of outmanned pretenders in the Missouri Valley Conference, but today it reads K-E-N-T-U-C-K-Y across the front of the opposing uniform. If you’re a competitor, these are the moments you relish, the moments you live for, the moments that largely define you.
No one will ever be able to take away 35-0, but plenty will dismiss 35-1. It was a year ago to this very day that the Shockers officially arrived at the big time of college basketball. The win over top ranked Gonzaga made Wichita State a part of the national narrative, since then they’ve gone 38-1 and have largely become one of the darlings of college hoops. Largely.
There are still those who view WSU as something akin to a party crasher and those are the people who, unwittingly, fuel Wichita State’s run. Like their coach Gregg Marshall, who was a non-scoring, tough guy as a player at tiny Randolph-Macon---the Shockers have been doubted with every step up the rung. Marshall loves to be told that he can’t do something, can’t be something and his Shockers have devoured his burning desire to prove people wrong.
Gregg Marshall is the kind of guy who would eat your heart out over a three foot putt for a five dollar Nassau on a sun baked muni in the middle of August. While you’re thinking about getting to the 19th hole for a cold one, he’s over there trying to figure out how to get you to play one more hole. The man thrives on competition and so does his team. Today the competition will be nerve rackingly intense; the eyes of the basketball world will be watching to see if this improbable party crasher actually belongs on the guest list. For me, that question has long been answered, but for Marshall, for his Shockers, there always has to be another challenge.
Wichita State is going to be guarded today. The Shockers are going to be guarded by big, long athletes who make shots a lot tougher to get off, let alone make. WSU is going to have to make jump shots because with Kentucky’s size, there will be very little room at the rim.
Experience counts in March, the Shockers are far more veteran than Kentucky and that’s a real plus. The Wildcats are physically talented but, when pushed, they can be undisciplined. Thant’s the goal for the Shockers today---take Kentucky out of its comfort zone, make them resort to their talent instead of their plan. With all five guys on the same page, UK is a formidable group---be disruptive enough to splinter that group and you’re on the right road. I’ll take my chances with the Shocker’s back court. As long as Wichita State can rebound on the defensive glass, Fred Van Vleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton tip the scales for me.
I thought it was interesting yesterday when Kentucky coach John Calipari was asked whether or not WSU’s 35-0 record was motivation for his team. He quickly replied, “No, I don’t want them to make this game any bigger than it is”. It’s not all about how WSU handles the moment; it’s about how the Wildcats react too. Kentucky is very young and most of those guys are on the big stage for the first time, even Calipari can’t know exactly how they’ll react.
An aside, from someone fascinated with betting lines, WSU opened as a 3 ½ point favorite in this one, but will likely tip with a 5 to 5 ½ point edge from bettors.
With Dayton beating Syracuse yesterday, the path to the Elite Eight becomes even clearer for Kansas. With a win over 15th seeded Eastern Kentucky already in hand, all they would need is a win today over #10 Stanford and next weekend against 11th seeded Dayton to reach the regional final. Of course, that’s the view of KU fan; Bill Self only sees a challenge from a very capable Cardinal team today. Frankly, I’ll be surprised if the ‘Hawks aren’t locked in today against a team they match up well with.