It’s a game defined by height, almost above all else. You can’t win basketball games without a certain amount of it.
And it represents a lot of what Kentucky is banking on to beat Wichita State on Sunday in the third round of the NCAA Tournament – eight inches more of height in the post, exactly, than the undefeated Shockers, who will try to push their record to 36-0 and into a second straight Sweet 16 appearance.
The Wildcats’ front line goes freshmen Dakari Johnson (7-foot) and Olathe’s Willie Cauley-Stein (7-foot), sophomore Alex Poythress (6-8) and a projected NBA lottery pick in 6-9 freshman Julius Randle, who torched Kansas State for 19 points and 15 rebounds on Friday.
The Shockers have a three-man post rotation of junior Darius Carter (6-7), senior Kadeem Coleby (6-9) and senior Chadrack Lufile (6-9). Senior forward Cleanthony Early (6-8) leads the Shockers in rebounding with 5.9 per game.
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So, eight inches taller. Doesn’t seem like that big of a deal when you look at it like that, right?
“That’s a lot,” Lufile said, laughing. “We don’t have two 7-footers.”
Don’t take his remarks as deference, however. Because the Shockers aren’t exactly known for backing down.
“We’ll hold our own, we’ll play smart defense,” Lufile said. “They’re athletic, so someone is going to be throwing the ball over the top or get those little, easy, bounce passes into the post. You have to deny and make it difficult for them.”
While Kentucky (25-10) may have struggled in some aspects of the game this year — most notably, consistent shooting — they’ve been great when it comes to rebounding.
The Wildcats have outrebounded opponents 41.1 to 31.1, while the Shockers are winning the season rebound battle 38.8-30.9. Kentucky is also snagging offensive rebounds at a high rate (14.6). Randle has been a monster on the boards all year, averaging 15.1 points and 10.7 rebounds.
“We’ve been pretty good at offensive rebounding the entire season,” Randle said. “I think it’s something we can use to our advantage. We are bigger and we have a lot of depth. It might be something we could exploit, sure.”
Early creates the biggest matchup problem for Kentucky in that he’s an inside-out player who can shoot the three. Saturday, the Kentucky players said no one player would be given the assignment of guarding Early.
“(Early) is very versatile,” Cauley-Stein said. “He’s basically a 3-2 man instead of a 3-4, and they are really aggressive in the paint ... we do so much switching (Randle) is not going to be the only one on him. Everybody is going to have to guard him at some point. It’s really just a team effort.”
Cauley-Stein is averaging three blocks and could make life difficult for Carter, who averages eight points, and Lufile, who get most of their points around the basket.
The Olathe Northwest grad and former high school wide receiver (imagine that, defensive backs) isn’t just quick off the floor once, but fights for loose balls and makes second and third efforts to keep the ball alive.
“We don’t want them to get second chances, that’s going to be very important,” Coleby said. “I can’t really compare them to anyone we’ve played. We won’t change our approach, just going to be physical as I can, box out, and that’s it.”