It took one of college basketball’s blue bloods to end the run of one of the new bloods.
Kentucky, which is to college basketball what the Kennedys and Rockefellers are to high society, needed to play every bit to the level of its No. 1 national preseason ranking on Sunday to shatter the dreams of everybody’s favorite blue-collar team, upstart Wichita State.
And it also meant the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers can again raise a toast, as they remain the last team to go through the college basketball season undefeated.
The Shockers did everything to win the game, but wound up losing 78-76 with a chance to win it at the buzzer. They shot 27 of 49 from the field (55 percent) and turned it over just nine times. They led at one point by nine before Fred VanVleet picked up a couple of careless fouls to find himself on the bench for a spell and Kentucky seized the moment to slice into the deficit.
Kentucky could have beaten just about anybody in the country with its performance and this could signal that the underachieving Wildcats are priming for a huge charge that belies their No. 8 seeding, though that in itself was a joke. Given their pedigree and past success in the tournament (and the fact three of their losses were to overall No. 1 Florida), how the NCAA Committee placed them this low was without question the biggest head-scratcher of the process.
There’s no way Kentucky would have won this game had the Harrison twins not played beyond their years. Both had experienced an up-and-down season, but on Sunday they combined for 12 of 22 from the field (5 of 10 from 3-point where they’re considered pedestrian at the best) and were 8 of 10 from the line, finishing with a total of 39 points. Aaron Harrison played 39 minutes and Andrew 34, as they were ironmen.
Fellow freshman Julius Randle was a beast with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Kentucky, in fact, started five freshmen, a la Fab Five of Michigan from some 20 years ago.
WSU coach Gregg Marshall couldn’t have done much more. The Shockers were well prepared and executed tremendously. Cleanthony Early, as has been his wont, saved his best for the national stage with a 31-point performance, one of the top three in the tournament so far. Ron Baker was nails with 20 points, but nobody else scored more than six.
Kentucky’s size and length proved to be difficult at times for the Shockers and the Wildcats dominated the inside for a 32-23 rebounding advantage. WSU’s three-headed center of Kadeem Coleby, Chadrack Lufile and Darius Carter didn’t get much done, combining for 11 points and just three rebounds.
So the Shockers’ ride is over and what a journey they took us on. You kept waiting for them to lose during the season, but they grinded out win after win and never let the pressure bother them. They won with class and lost with class. Adding in last year’s appearance in the Final Four, where they outplayed eventual national champion Louisville for 30 minutes, WSU basketball has now arrived and will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
WSU loses Early, Lufile, Coleby and Nick Wiggins. But with one of the nation’s best backcourts coming back in Baker and VanVleet, along with starters Carter and Tekele Cotton, the Shockers need only to add depth to make another high-profile run.