Bob Lutz: Kentucky presents the matchup everyone outside Kansas waited for

03/22/2014 12:03 AM

08/06/2014 10:28 AM

ST. LOUIS – A night that started with a technical foul during the pregame warmups because of Brian Rohleder’s illegal dunk didn’t get any better for Kansas State.

The Wildcats were successful in slowing the pace, making things muddy, giving themselves a chance against Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament’s second round Friday night.

But Kansas State couldn’t shoot or rebound, both of which are pretty important in basketball. Their best-laid plans were foiled by an inability to do the basics as Kentucky moved on, 56-49.

K-State shot 35.8 percent overall, made 5 of 21 three-pointers and was 6 of 12 from the free-throw line. The Wildcats were outrebounded 40-28 by Kentucky.

They leave the tournament disappointed they didn’t give Kentucky their best shot, not by a long shot. But this is a team that has been offensively-challenged all season. And outside of Thomas Gipson and Wesley Iwundu, who combined to make 7 of 10 shots, the rest of the Cats were 12 of 43.

So, no Kansas State-Wichita State game Sunday. But Kentucky-Wichita State isn’t a bad consolation prize.

This Kentucky team is loaded with size and athletes who can jump, run and dazzle.

But these Wildcats are not always an attention-to-detail group. Sometimes it looks like they play helter-skelter for 40 minutes, then look up at the clock to see who won.

Wichita State is going to test Kentucky with its precision. The Shockers, I don’t think, will become rattled by Kentucky’s overwhelming size the way Kansas State did.

Make no mistake, though, the Wildcats will present Wichita State with its biggest challenge of the season.

Kentucky goes 7-foot, 244 pounds (Willie Cauley-Stein), 7-0, 265 (Dakari Johnson), 6-9, 250 (Julius Randle) and 6-8, 239 (Alex Poythress). The Wildcats’ guards, Aaron and Andrew Harrison, are both 6-6 with bulk.

There’s no scrimmage, no Missouri Valley opponent that can prepare the Shockers for that. But size brings no guarantees and the Wildcats have shown time and again this season that they can be beaten, something Wichita State hasn’t encountered.

Kentucky coach John Calipari has done more fiddling than Charlie Daniels when it comes to mending his team’s ills.

“We’re probably playing right now as well as we’ve played all year,” Calipari said Thursday. “And I’m happy about that. It has taken some time. You know, we thought we had it, then we lost it, and now we’ve got it back. So we’re feeling pretty good.”

I don’t know. Watching Kentucky play against Kansas State, something doesn’t look right. That something isn’t Randle, who had 19 points and 15 rebounds and was too overpowering for an undersized K-State.

The Shockers have three big guys to battle against Kentucky. But Chadrack Lufile, Darius Carter and Kadeem Coleby aren’t as big as the biggest Wildcats. Nobody is in college basketball.

“Obviously, we’ve tweaked a couple of things with our team,” Calipari though, though he refused to divulge specifics. “We tweaked one thing before the (SEC) tournament and now we’ve tweaked another thing.

“But the one thing I will tell you is that it took me more time to really figure out exactly where these guys fit together. Not their fault, my fault. I told them how proud I am because it’s been an onslaught of criticism - personal, coaching, team, all that. They believe in each other, they believe in what we’re trying to do. And it tells me a lot about them and their character.”

Kentucky has lost 10 games in a down year for the SEC. Calipari says he likes what he’s seeing lately from this team, but the Wildcats are just 4-4 in their past eight games. And outside of Randle and Aaron Harrison, who had 18 points in the win over Kansas State, they weren’t particularly sharp in Friday night’s game.

K-State made it difficult for Kentucky to score. K-State also made it difficult for K-State to score, which was the Wildcats’ undoing.

So basketball fans in Kansas will be deprived of a game with a lot of appeal.

But Kentucky-Wichita State is pretty prime time, too, especially considering what the Shockers are doing this season.

It was Kentucky that started this season ranked No. 1 in the polls. It’s Wichita State that has ascended to No. 2. The two have never played against one another. Sunday that changes.

Kansas State has bowed out.

Now the Shockers get the bluest of the blue bloods, a game for the ages, a chance to knock off an eight-time national champion. This is what life at the top of college basketball’s penthouse looks like. Wichita State has a chance to settle in.

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