Cats, Shockers Cross Paths Again
INDIANAPOLIS – The parallels between 2014 and 2017 can’t be missed.
A pair of second-round NCAA Tournament matchups three years apart pitting one highly seeded team and another widely discussed as underseeded. Both featured Kentucky and Wichita State, only the roles are reversed.
“I don't know if it's a coincidence or not,” Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall said.
This time, it’s the Wildcats (30-5) playing the role of the favorite, seeded second in the South Region and set for a matchup with the 10th-seeded Shockers (31-4) at approximately 2:40 p.m. on Sunday. If the parallels continue after tipoff, the crowd in attendance at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis and watching on CBS will be in for a treat.
“It was a tremendous game,” Marshall said of UK’s 78-76 win. “I didn't even realize it until after the game what a great game it was because I hate giving up that many points. But the way they shot it, the way we shot it, it was back and forth. And it was after that game when everyone says, what a classic game. That may have been one of the best games in X amount of years in the tournament or the best game this year by far in the tournament.”
Derek Willis was one of only four players even on the sideline for that game two years ago – two players on both sides. Willis and Dominique Hawkins from UK and John Robert Simon and Zach Bush were all freshmen back then.
“Just thought it was coached real well,” Willis said. “I thought they were in a lot of really good schemes. They had some wing, small forward player, (Cleanthony) Early. He was a really good player. We just played really good together and came out and came down to it. They got a nice shot off at the end, but came away with the ‘W,’ just how it went. Just a dog fight. We came out on top.”
Both Wildcat seniors remember the instant classic vividly, right down to the last shot. They thought Fred VanVleet’s would-be game-winning 3 was in when it left his hands.
“It was a clean look,” Willis said. “… He had a little nice crossover move and got space and had a good look at it. Just didn’t go. Stuff like that happens and we moved on and did what we did.”
Nonetheless, none of those four seniors even played in that game two years ago.
“The bottom line is the only two guys that remember that game, other than you media people, are Coach Cal and I,” Marshall said. “Everyone else is new. There might have been a couple of my guys that were freshmen at that point, but can't think of too many that played in that game that are going to be playing.”
That undercuts some of the readymade storylines about a heated rematch, but Wichita State isn’t ignoring that game altogether. Though the Harrison twins have been replaced by De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk and Julius Randle’s rebounding void is filled by Bam Adebayo, the Shockers are looking at the 2014 game as a template for how to approach a team with the elite size and athleticism UK always has.
“We show our team what we can to best represent what they're going to see or what they're going to face in a particular game, how they're going to defend, what their transition is like, what type of breakdown offense that they use,” Marshall said. “So we're trying to get our boys prepared for the mental part of the game, and that's the last time we played them.”
Calipari, meanwhile, hasn’t even watched that Wichita State game from 2014 himself since right after it happened.
“There's all kind of ways of doing this, and it's just not something I would do because the players are all different,” Calipari said.
Whether it’s in recruiting, development and preparation, the Cats and Shockers each have their way of doing things. More often than not, those ways are, just like Calipari and Marshall’s approaches to using tape of the 2014 game, very different.
The results, however, are similar. Wichita State has won at least one NCAA Tournament game five seasons in a row, Kentucky four. Kentucky has reached the Final Four twice over that time, Wichita State once. And now, their paths will intersect under similar circumstances for the second time.
“We're going to have to have a heck of a game to win the game, we know that, and play better than we played yesterday to win the game,” Calipari said. “They're talented. They're big. They're physical. They're strong. They're veterans. Good team.”