Bob Lutz

Undervalued Shockers fall to Kentucky, but will keep getting up

And that, folks, is what a 10-seed gets you.

A date with Kentucky on the first weekend when everybody knows — at least everybody with eyes — you’re so much better.

This is Wichita State’s plight in college basketball and to the Shockers’ credit, they don’t run from it.

They embrace it, in fact, knowing the only way to ultimately convince people that seeding them 10th borders on insanity is to play insanely. Never mind being ranked 19th in the final Associated Press poll, which equates to a tournament No. 5 seed.

Kentucky got Wichita State on Sunday the way it got the Shockers in 2014, by the skin of their blue-blood noses. The Wildcats overcame redshirt freshman guard Landry Shamet, who valiantly brought his team back from the near-dead with 14 of his game-high 20 points in the final 7:25. Kentucky won 65-62.

It was two poor Shocker possessions late — when they had no timeouts — that will be regretted. One ended with a rushed, deflected Markis McDuffie three-point attempt, the other with Shamet scoping for a slight opening, never finding one, and having his desperation shot blocked at the buzzer.

What were the Shockers doing with no timeouts? Coach Gregg Marshall hoards them the way a squirrel stores nuts. But when you’re up against a long, athletic and aggressive team like Kentucky, you sometimes needed the calming influence of a TO.

“We came up one possession short and we’ve got to execute better and that’s on me,” Marshall said. “So I wish we had that to do over again, but we don’t.”

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Shamet was a few seats away when he saw his coach take the bullet for the last possessions. So after briefly addressing a reporter’s question about how well he had played, how he exemplified the Shockers’ kill-or-be-killed attitude, he offered a correction.

“Coach said that late-game execution was on him, but it’s on me,” Shamet said. “I’m the point guard. He called it and it was clear what we were supposed to do. I just didn’t do exactly what we needed to do there down the stretch on a few possessions.”

This is a redshirt freshman, folks. Two years out of high school, 39 games into his college career. And on the cusp of being one of the best players in Shocker history.

When Sunday’s game got tough, and the Shockers fell behind 58-51 with 5:13 remaining, it was Shamet to the rescue. He made a couple of ridiculously difficult three-pointers and was fouled on another, after which he made three free throws.

Kentucky did everything but barricade Shamet inside Fort Knox, but he could not be, would not be, contained.

“He made big-time shots, those are gutty shots,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said of Shamet. “Like the game was over and he makes a three. He makes a two. We got it to seven, ready to bust out, and he made plays. He’s good.”

Calipari was highly complimentary of the Shockers leading up to Sunday’s game. All coaches are complimentary of the Shockers because, presumably, they’re coaches and they know basketball.

Where Wichita State has historically fallen short in the respect game is in the room that houses the NCAA selection committee. The Shockers’ history counts for nothing, which is a flaw in this system. You can’t convince me that schools such as Kansas, Duke, Michigan State, North Carolina and many others from the biggest conferences don’t get some benefit of the doubt.

The doubt for the Shockers, though, seems to be perpetual. The only time in the past five years in which Wichita State’s seed has matched its body of work was in 2014, when WSU was 34-0. Even then, though, the committee planted Kentucky as an 8-seed.

“How many years do we have to do this to make people respect our program?” Marshall asked rhetorically. “I don’t know. I mean, I know that we have the heart of a champion.

“This will just be more fuel for us. This will be a three-point loss to Kentucky, a 2-seed. We know we can play much better.”

And that’s the rub. Ten-seeds are supposed to lose to 2-seeds, but in this case the Shockers were good enough — again — to win.

Maybe the lack of execution late was partially because the Shockers haven’t had to test their precision in close games. Or maybe a deep team wore down some. After shooting 50 percent or better in 13 games this season, Wichita State struggled with 38.7-percent shooting against Kentucky.

That continued a trend. In their last five games, the Shockers shot 37.1, 44.4, 38.0, 39.6 and 38.7 percent.

The depth that carried Wichita State all season dissipated in Indianapolis, when Marshall was hesitant to go to his bench.

March is so starkly different from every other month for the Shockers. They aren’t battle-tested, so they rely on their considerable moxie and determination with little experience in tight, late-game situations.

Moxie and determination go a long way. But not quite far enough Sunday. Not when they needed poise and level heads in the game’s final minute or so to try and steal a win.

It was the only time Sunday that Wichita State played like a 10-seed.