2:40 PM EST, CBS – Line: Kentucky -5, Over/Under: 154
A rematch four years in the making highlights the second day of the NCAA Tournament Round of 32 as the Tenth-Seeded Wichita State Shockers battle the Second-Seeded Kentucky Wildcats in the South Region at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. If you’re looking for an unsuspecting giant to fall, this is in all likelihood where you’ll find it, for the quick turnaround from Friday’s action provides little rest and preparation for today’s combatants. Basically, if you make the grievous mistake of overlooking your opponent, then you’re gonna be in for a LONG day. This of course brings us to Wichita State (31-4, 17-1 in Missouri Valley Conference), who over the years have established themselves as more than just a fixture in the Big Dance, but a fairly consistent dark horse contender to win it as well; Gregg Marshall has now led the Shockers to six consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, advancing to the second weekend on two occasions, including a Sweet Sixteen showing in 2015 and a trip to the Final Four back in 2013. However, it was their 2014 appearance in particular that looms largest in regards to today’s contest, for it was the then Eighth-Seeded Wildcats that upset the Top-Seeded Shockers in this very same round, ending their thirty-five game unbeaten run in an 88-86 epic that in retrospect is now regarded as the crown jewel of that year’s tourney. And it’s with that said, that Marshall’s troops are likely relishing the opportunity to return the favor, as they carry a sixteen-game winning streak into this meeting, after upending Seventh-Seeded Dayton on Friday Night in a 64-58 affair. Trailing by a deuce at Halftime, Wichita State turned up the heat in the second half, outscoring the Flyers 37-29 the rest of the way, in a grueling defensive slugfest. With both teams shooting below 40.0% from the field, the Missouri Valley Conference Champions harassed their higher-seeded opponent all night, relegating them to a mere 31.0% shooting from the floor, including 11-of-36 from within the three-point arc (30.6%) and 7-of-22 from beyond it (31.8%), while manhandling them on the glass, owning a decisive 40-24 advantage in rebounding. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about their dissertation in defense was that they did it the old-fashioned way, without forcing turnovers, coming away with just six total, but did manage to block eight shots while altering many more. On the flipside, Marshall’s charges shot 39.6% from the field, but while they too struggled mightily from the perimeter (6-of-20, 30.0%), they fared far better inside the arc, where they finished on 13-of-28 attempts (46.4%), with the triumvirate of Landry Shamet (11.2 PTS, 47.1% FG, 44.6% 3FG, 2.8 REB, 3.3 AST, ), Zach Brown (7.4 PTS, 40.5% FG, 33.6% 3FG, 3.1 REB, 1.6 AST), and Shaquille Morris (9.5 PTS, 52.4% FG, 5.0 REB, 1.0 AST, 1.0 BLK) combining for twenty-five points on 11-of-21 shooting (52.4%), thirteen rebounds, eight assists, and two blocks. Marshall also received a decent showing from his reserves, particularly in comparison to Dayton’s, who outscored their counterparts eighteen to five on the evening. However, one would have to think that in order to pull the upset today, they’ll need a much more productive effort from Markis McDuffie (11.7 PTS, 46.6% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 5.7 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.2 STL), who led the team in scoring, rebounding, and steals in his Sophomore campaign. It’s safe to say that his performance in Friday’s victory over Dayton was not what the youngster had in mind, as he stumbled his way to eight points on a miserable 1-of-8 shooting from the field (20.0%), though he did contribute positively with five rebounds (three offensive) and a pair of blocks. The 6’8″ Forward will need to make his presence known in the interior, particularly on the boards, so that Kentucky’s size doesn’t begin to overwhelm his teammates over the duration of the game.
Meanwhile, then there’s Kentucky (30-5, 16-2 in SEC), who every year in some fashion or another seems to persistently be a popular pick to cut down the nets, and with good reason; the reigning SEC Champions are making their seventh trip to the NCAA Tournament in John Calipari’s eight years in Lexington, and have finished no worse than the Elite Eight just once, making a pair of appearances in the National Championship Game, while hoisting that very trophy back in 2012. However, they have quite the arduous trek in front of them, for awaiting them in the stacked South Region are fellow College Basketball Blue Bloods UCLA and North Carolina, and that’s IF these guys manage to evade Wichita State, which is no easy task. So, in other words, if the Wildcats are in fact going to make it to yet another Final Four on Calipari’s watch, they’re going to have to earn it. Speaking of earning, that’s exactly what they did in their First Round meeting with Fifteenth-Seeded Northern Kentucky, whom while proving to be quite the irritant, were eventually disposed of in a 79-70 victory. After establishing a sizable 38-24 lead at the midway point, the Wildcats visibly took their foot off the gas in the Second Half, as their neighbors to the North outscored them 46-41 over the final twenty minutes of play, even cutting the lead to eight at one point. Simply put, this wasn’t an inspiring offensive performance for Calipari’s charges, who largely sleepwalked through the affair, shooting 44.3% from the field, including 3-of-17 from beyond the arc (17.6%), while totaling nearly as many turnovers (eleven) as assists (twelve). Fortunately, they made good use of their size and athleticism, getting to the rim at will, where they shot a stellar 24-of-44 from inside the three-point arc (54.5%), while making the most of their twenty-eight trips to the Charity Stipe, netting twenty-two of them (78.6%), outscoring The Norse by a dozen points in that regard. Defensively, they smothered their opponent, yielding a scant 35.6% shooting from the field, including 18-of-41 from within the arc (43.9%) and 8-of-32 from downtown (25.0%), contesting everything at the rim where they blocked nine shots and altered many more. Freshman Point Guard De’Aaron Fox (16.2 PTS, 47.6% FG, 4.0 REB, 4.8 AST, 1.4 STL) led the way with nineteen points on 8-of-15 shooting (53.3%), two rebounds, three assists, a steal, and a pair of blocks, while fellow Frosh Malik Monk (20.2 PTS, 45.3% FG, 39.3% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.0 STL) added another twelve points on 3-of-11 shooting (27.3%), two rebounds, two assists, and a block. With that said, let’s give it up to the Bigs, whom ultimately made the difference Friday Night, as Edrice Adebayo (13.3 PTS, 61.2% FG, 8.1 REB, 1.5 BLK) and Derek Willis (7.0 PTS, 48.9% FG, 39.1% 3FG, 5.2 REB, 1.1 BLK) made their presence felt in the interior, where they proceeded to manhandle Northern Kentucky throughout the tilt. The duo accounted for a total of twenty-three points on 7-of-16 shooting from the floor (43.8%), twenty-five rebounds (seven offensive), four assists, two steals, and a quartet of blocks. And that will ultimately prove to be the key to victory for the Wildcats, who while clearly being one of the most prolific offensive teams in the country (85.7 PTS, 5th Overall), have at times been prone to significant lapses on the defensive end of the court. Kentucky has allowed 71.5 points this season (160th Overall), mostly because of their inexplicable knack for committing fouls; no team in the country has fouled their opponent more often than these guys, who as a result have seen their opposition attempt 20.7 free-throws a night (270th Overall), making 14.0 of them (235th Overall), cutting into the typically sizable advantage they often earn at the Stripe on their own (18.6 FT, 3rd Overall). Communication and consistency are things Calipari has harped on constantly this year, and they’ll need to sort that out if they’re to topple the potent offensive teams that they’re likely to meet moving forward in the tournament.