ST. LOUIS – Kentucky coach John Calipari hopped and skipped off the court Sunday afternoon.
Which isn’t easy to do for a guy with a bad hip.
“I had a massage yesterday,” Calipari said. “Feeling much better.”
But that wasn’t why he was hopping and skipping. His eighth-seeded Wildcats had just escaped with a 78-76 victory over top-seed Wichita State, spoiling the Shockers’ undefeated season in the process.
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This wasn’t your routine first-weekend, 8 vs. 1 game for the NCAA Tournament.
“That was an Elite Eight game,” Calipari said. “The winner of this should have gone to the Final Four.
“That’s how good they are and how good we’ve become.”
As much discussion as there has been about the 35-0 record the Shockers took into the day, there has been just as much criticism of a Kentucky team up to its eyeballs in freshmen so talented that a half-dozen could go in June’s NBA Draft.
Before the season, a company was printing up T-shirts that said 40-0. Three games into the season, the Wildcats lost their first game and the howling started.
In a state where basketball victories are considered a birthright – much as in Kansas – the critics came unglued as Kentucky lost four of seven games going into the NCAA Tournament.
Worst of all in that stretch was a 19-point loss to Florida.
So, yes, winning Sunday was a relief for the Wildcats, who head to the Sweet 16 at Indianapolis to face rival Louisville.
“That was like 5 million pounds of pressure being taken off our shoulders,” said Willie Cauley-Stein, a 7-foot sophomore out of Olathe Northwest.
Kentucky did it with Godzilla going berserk in the second half, tearing down power lines and anything in his path.
That would be Julius Randle, a freshman man-child who is targeted as a high first-round draft choice.
Randle had taken four shots and scored two points by halftime, when the Shockers led by six.
“And then coach told him to dominate the boards,” Cauley-Stein said. “And, man, he did. We all fed off that.”
The 6-foot-9, 250-pounder unleashed his power, finishing with 13 points and 10 rebounds. He also created holes for his teammates and passed off for six assists.
But rather than focusing on his day, Randle considered what a relief it was to get past WSU.
Maybe the Wildcats couldn’t go unbeaten, but at least they defeated a team that was.
“They earned that record,” Randle said. “That’s a very, very good team. A better team than we expected.”
Cauley-Stein said, “They’re one of the top teams we’ve played so far. Their record was no fluke. That’s a way better team than I expected. Good shooters, quick. They defend.”
During the post-game handshake between coaches, Calipari paused for a long moment to talk to Gregg Marshall.
“I feel for their coach,” he said. “Understand that what he did to keep these guys on point was nothing short of miraculous.
“I’ve been where I had to coach teams that were 26-0, 20-0. I’m telling you, each game there is more and more pressure. I know how hard they work. I’m happy for my guys, but disappointed for them because they had a heck of a run going.”
While he wouldn’t come out and say it, he implied he was disappointed that seeding put Kentucky in a position to play the Shockers so early in the tournament.
But he also understands that it has taken for a team that starts all freshmen to reach the level it is is now.
“It’s so hard trying to figure out roles for guys when you have all these young guys,” he said. “We hit some potholes along the way. But they’re more accepting of their roles and becoming a team.
“They are losing themselves in a team. I just wish we had another month of the season, because we’re getting better every day. And I really wish we could have played Wichita State later in the tournament.”