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Commentary Bob Lutz: Wichita State gets national eye for Kentucky matchup

  • Published Saturday, March 22, 2014, at 7:48 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, April 18, 2014, at 11:39 a.m.

ST. LOUIS – If you're a college basketball fan, and you enjoy intrigue, have we got a game for you.

Wichita State, the upstart, the little engine that could, the team the pundits love to second guess, against eight-time national champion Kentucky and its one-and-done-loving coach, John Calipari on Sunday in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.

The hype has been building. A team that is continuing to add to its reputation as it battles the skepticism that comes with playing in a weak conference, against a team that has its reputation engrained in granite.

Wichita State.

Kentucky.

The two schools have never played. Wichita State wouldn’t dare send a recruiting letter to anyone the Wildcats are after.

“We don’t even recruit the second level down from Kentucky’s recruits,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said.

But here the Shockers are, favored in a game against a team whose roster dotted with McDonald’s All-Americans.

Kentucky is young. Sometimes painfully young. The Wildcats don’t always click. They have driven their coach, John Calipari, to the brink of insanity.

But they’re also good enough, talented enough, to win this tournament.

“We still do some things when we get in the huddle we say, ‘Why’d you do that?’ ” Calipari said. “They don’t know.”

Wichita State’s players know why they do everything. They know when they make mistakes. They are more experienced and will not be intimidated by Kentucky’s incredible size and athleticism.

There’s also that name on the front of the jerseys. Kentucky. It has clout.

“I watched Kentucky play a lot when I was growing up,” WSU point guard Fred VanVleet said. “Obviously, when Calipari took over and they got the John Walls and those guys in there, it was interesting. They’re always fun to watch and they keep their talent level so high. I wouldn’t say I was a fan, but it was always a pleasure to watch them.”

There is nuance and charm to a team like Wichita State. Kentucky carries a sledgehammer. But that doesn’t always mean the Wildcats know how to swing it. And it’s going to be hard for them to hit the Shockers squarely.

If all of these big, talented Kentucky players had a year or two more seasoning, Sunday’s game might not be close. But the Wildcats are still learning. And sometimes failing. They are a six-month old Labrador that doesn’t always retrieve what it’s supposed to retrieve.

Wichita State’s players, meanwhile, know how to bring the newspaper in from the driveway and drop it at the feet of their owner. The Shockers don’t make many mistakes. And when they do, they don’t make them again.

It’s the contrast in teams, in coaches, in heritage, in accomplishments.

It’s about a relatively new kid on the block taking on the block. And having a good chance.

If you know Marshall, you know how excited and motivated he must be about coaching against Kentucky and Calipari, who to many represents the problems of college sports with his one-and-done-dotted rosters.

Marshall coached against Kentucky once before, when he was at Winthrop and he took his team to Rupp Arena to take on Tubby Smith and the Wildcats. Kentucky won 65-44.

“I don’t go all the way back to (Adolph) Rupp’s Runts, but I remember Kyle Macy and (Dirk) Minniefield and those teams in the mid-’70s,” Marshall said. “And Jack Givens scoring 41 in the (1978) national championship game against Duke. So that was a great team.”

You’ll understand, though, if Marshall isn’t in a place at the moment to do a lot of Kentucky’s PR. He’s not filling his player’s heads with a bunch of Kentucky hype. Just another game. That’s the battle cry.

Calipari, too, is downplaying today’s game. That surprises me. I figured he would use the Shockers’ 35-0 record to motivate a young team with an occasional attention deficit disorder.

And he might be.

But his public stand is different.

“At this point, I don’t want my team to make this game bigger than it is,” Calipari said. “It’s a basketball game. We’ve been getting better. Our team has improved and our individual players have improved. We’re improved defensively. We’re sharing the ball more.”

Rather than accurately describing reality, Calipari sounds more like a wishful thinker as he talks about his team getting better. I’m not sure he really believes it as much as he hopes it.

But he’s the coach at Kentucky and that alone makes him and his team dangerous. The Wildcats are the Yankees, Celtics and Packers of college basketball. They don’t always have to be good. Sometimes they just have to be Kentucky.

Sunday, though, the Wildcats will have to be good. Wichita State won’t be impressed by all of the McDonald’s Americans or the rich history of Kentucky basketball. History means it happened in the past. Sunday’s game will consist of 40 minutes in the moment, with history to be made.

Reach Bob Lutz at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @boblutz.

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