There are always connections, no matter how small or small town. Did you know Ron Baker's and Willie Cauley-Stein's mothers played basketball together at St. Mary's of the Plains college? You should've seen Cauley-Stein's face on the podium when I asked him about that. "I would expect something like that to come from Southwest Kansas, because everybody knows everybody," said Cauley-Stein.
And in the coaching world the circles run even tighter. Devon Smith, the director of player development for the Shockers, fondly recalls days when he knew coach John Calipari, before Cal became what he is today.
"When I was a camper at Howard Garfinkle's 5-star basketball camp, from wee-little to growing up, I would sit and rest on every word that Rick Pitino and John Calipari and Hubie Brown would say," says Smith with a smile in his eyes. "After that, we would all go to the Carnegie Deli or wherever in New York and I would sit and be in the corner listening to stories. I happened to get to know them over the years and having the opportunity to work for coach Pitino and being friends with coach Cal it's been very beneficial to my career."
Smith is also known as a staunch defender of his friend. Very few coaches have gotten the bad reputation like Coach Cal has acquired because of his recruitment of one-and-done players, his rumored cheating and other things. But Smith has a completely different side of the confident coach.
"He's a great person he's a great guy, and one thing this business does is it changes you. Not just from a financial standpoint but from a visibility standpoint. But he's the same guy from Pittsburgh that his friends know him to be."
Wouldn't you know it, the connection between Cal and the Shockers goes even deeper than Smith. Cal was the coach of the New Jersey Nets in the late 90's and guess who ended his career with the Nets? None other than Xavier McDaniel, the X Man, who along with Antoine Carr helped start the Play Angry mantra to get the Shockers going for last year's Final Four.
All the connections are fun, yes, but there's also a little analysis to be had. I've been hemming and hawing in my head about who has the advantage who has the talent who will come out on top. After watching Kentucky play Kansas State on Friday and then interviewing the coaches and players on Saturday, I feel confident in saying the Shockers will win.
First you have to look at where Kansas State fell short and it's pretty obvious. KState shot just 5-21 from three-point range. As we saw in the second round of last year, when the Shockers hit 14 3's against Gonzaga (12 coming from current WSU players), Wichita State can get hot from the perimeter. I feel confident that Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet, Tekele Cotton and Cleanthony Early can all hit a couple of triples to keep pace.
Kansas State was also out-rebounded 40-28. Wichita State kills the boards. It will be a challenge up against Kentucky's size but like Chadrack Lufile said on Saturday, other teams haven't boxed out Kentucky like the Shockers will. "I'm just as big as them," said CJ with a confident smile, "I'm 6'9, 250."
Also remember that Kentucky only shot 38% from the field. Kansas State plays really good defense, they just couldn't balance out with a strong offensive attack. Wichita State is more balanced than the Wildcats from Manhattan.
Andrew Harrison is a question mark for Kentucky today after apparently injuring his arm. There was of course no straight answer given at press conferences on Saturday but he's a starting guard for Kentucky; a starting guard that also happened to turn the ball over 6 times against Kansas State.
Speaking of turnovers, Kentucky's starting 5 had 14 of the Wildcats' 15 turnovers against Kstate. Yikes. Wichita State is excellent in transition on both ends and will seriously take advantage of mistakes from poor guard play.
And then of course, you've always got the chip on the shoulder. When asked by the media if they had ever been recruited by Kentucky, Ron Baker, Tekele Cotton and Darius Carter all answered with "no." Of course they weren't. The Shockers don't recruit one year guys. Gregg Marshall looks for the overlooked. Marshall wants players that act like he does as a coach. He wants that 'us against the world' mentality of 'you didn't want me, you didn't think I was good enough, so let me prove to you how much you should've given me a chance.'
It's cocky, it's confident and like Cauley-Stein said "The Shockers are coming in with a lot of swag right now."