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St. Louis notes: Calipari knows a bit about a long undefeated start

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, March 22, 2014, at 7:56 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, March 23, 2014, at 5:24 p.m.

ST. LOUIS — Kentucky coach John Calipari admires the work Gregg Marshall has done this season at Wichita State, and he doesn’t care who knows it.

On back-to-back days, Calipari has complimented Marshall for the way he has managed his team during its undefeated streak.

“I have been through what he is going through, trying to keep a team focused in staying in the moment when you are undefeated and you are trying to run the table,” Calipari said. “Very difficult. He’s done a masterful job. A masterful job.

“You would think at some point they start feeling the weight of the world. They’re not. They play to win. Anytime a team has made a run, you don’t see anyone going, ‘Oh, my gosh, we may lose.’ He’s done wonderful work.”

The closest Calipari has come to an undefeated run was a 26-0 start during the 2007-08 season at Memphis. The Tigers steamrolled everyone they faced until Tennessee came to town for a special rivalry game. Memphis was ranked No. 1. Tennessee was No. 2.

The Volunteers won at Memphis 66-62, but the Tigers fought back. They didn’t lose again until the national championship game.

“Believe me when I tell you folks,” Calipari said, “I had three or four teams start the season with 20 wins or more to start a season and I can’t begin to tell you how much you try to push it off as nothing, and you say it’s nothing. Oh, it’s something.

“And he’s made it a blessing, not a burden.”

When told of Calipari’s kind words, Marshall deflected credit to his players.

“We’ve got great players that are easy to coach,” Marshall said, “that follow a game plan, that stay steadfast in their belief that they want to be special, and they like the winning streak continuing.”

Past is present – The significance of both of them being in St. Louis for the NCAA Tournament, albeit for different regionals, wasn’t lost on Kansas sophomore Perry Ellis and Wichita State sophomore Evan Wessel.

That’s because the two made their mark as one of the greatest prep duos in Kansas history at Heights, winning three straight Class 6A titles in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Wessel graduated from Heights in 2011, receiving a medical redshirt after breaking his thumb early last season.

Ellis graduated from Heights in 2012, adding a fourth state title.

“I’ve thought about it a little bit, that we went our different ways for college and now we’re on the biggest stage,” Ellis said. “It’s an awesome feeling. The thing I remember the most about him was he was always a winner, whatever he was doing, he won.”

The two saw each other in Wichita before the season started and were able to catch up a bit, but St. Louis was the first time they’d seen each other since. The Jayhawks play Stanford on Sunday in a South Regional game, followed by the Shockers against Kentucky in the Midwest Regional.

“It’s great having us both here in the same place, even though we’re not in the same region,” Wessel said. “Two Wichita kids, growing up and dreaming about being the NCAA Tournament and now we’re right in the middle of it. He’s a great friend, a hard worker.”

Ellis said he sees one particular similarity between himself and Wessel when he watches WSU games, one he said goes back to lessons learned under Heights coach Joe Auer.

“He does what he needs to do to help the team win, whatever the coach needs him to do,” Ellis said. “I’m the same way and I think we both learned that in high school. If our coach needs us to do something out there, we do it.”

From the neighborhood to here – Kentucky assistant coach Orlando Antigua and Wichita State forward Cleanthony Early had a nice moment in the hallway on Saturday as both teams practiced and met with the media.

As the Wildcats were walking into their locker room and WSU was leaving the Scottrade Center, Antigua spotted Early walking down the hallway and waited for him to get to where he was and gave him a hug.

“I just told him I was really excited for him, happy for all that he’s been able to accomplish,” said Antigua, who is in his fifth year as a Kentucky assistant.

Both Antigua and Early hail from the Bronx, N.Y., although Early’s mother moved him to upstate New York when he was in the eighth grade – around the same age as Antigua was when he was shot in the head near his left eye in Halloween 1988. Doctors were unable to retrieve the bullet from his head, and despite that he continued his career at St. Raymond’s High and Pittsburgh.

He’s carved out a career at Memphis and Kentucky as one of the nation’s top recruiters, consistently bringing in recruiting classes chock-full of McDonald’s All-Americans.

“Cleanthony has just done so well for them,” Antigua said. “I’m a little older than him, obviously, but he’s still another kid from the neighborhood, just like me, who got out and is doing good.”

Canadian buddies – Players from north of the border are filling up St. Louis.

WSU has Nick Wiggins and Chadrack Lufile. For KU, there’s Nick’s little brother, freshman Andrew.

Stanford starts two Canadians, redshirt junior Stefan Nastic and senior Dwight Powell.

And, yes, some have played together.

Andrew Wiggins was a third-grader when he played up on the same team as Nastic, who also played with Nick Wiggins.

“I know their entire family pretty well,” Nastic said. “We’re all from the same area. A great family, definitely great players.”

Andrew Wiggins played up so he could join one of Powell’s tournament teams. And Powell likely will draw extensive time trying to guard him in Sunday’s game.

“He’s a tough guard,” Powell said. “He has a high motor, always looking to guard.”

Stopping the dunk – KU had 11 dunks in its victory Friday over Eastern Kentucky. The Jayhawks can expect a bigger challenge at the rim from lengthy Stanford.

“They like to play above the rim,” said Josh Huestis, Stanford’s 6-7 senior. “So it just comes down to making defensive adjustments. We can’t let them get those things off defensive lapses.”

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