Appreciating Near-Perfection in an Instant Classic Between Kentucky and Wichita State

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 24th, 2014

There were a number of storylines entering Sunday’s Kentucky vs. Wichita State game about 1-and-dones, so-called “mid-majors,” David vs. Goliath, and of course, quests for undefeated seasons. Neither the Wildcats nor the Shockers would ultimately reach the 40-0 prize this season, but that certainly doesn’t mean that they would not come exceptionally close to perfection.

Kentucky and Wichita State came together in an instant classic (AP/Jeff Roberson).

Kentucky and Wichita State came together in an instant classic (AP/Jeff Roberson).

It’s no secret that Kentucky struggled this season, deteriorating into a poor defensive squad that often appeared lost on offense. When the Wildcats suffered back-to-back losses to Arkansas and South Carolina near the end of the regular season, it seemed as if the team was spiraling out of control. Among most everybody who follows the program, it appeared highly unlikely that John Calipari’s team had the guts and drive to participate in the best game of the season, and one of the best postseason games in years. But there they were yesterday, standing tall, after winning a 78-76 thriller over Wichita State.

Kentucky coach John Calipari recognized the magnitude of Sunday’s effort afterward. “This was an Elite Eight game,” Calipari said. “The winner of this should have gone to the Final Four. That’s what this was.” It certainly had the feel of two potential Final Four teams as Kentucky put a hand in Fred Van Vleet’s face as he rose to ultimately miss the game-winning three-pointer. As the ball bounced off the side of the rim, it was apparent to all how sublimely close the Shockers had come to a flawless season. “We executed our final play of the game to perfection,” said Wichita State guard Ron Baker, who finished the game with 20 points. “We got our MVP the ball, and what else could you have done?” Of course, the outcome could have easily gone the other way, and Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall evoked a painful image from Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament past. “There was no magic shot at the end with [Christian] Laettner,” he said, “and [John] Pelphrey defending it and all that. But it had the makings of it.” Kentucky and Duke re-established a rivalry centering around that shot over two decades ago, and one has to think that a similar mutual respect was earned between the Wildcats and Shockers after yesterday’s instant classic.

Sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein never felt the experience of winning an NCAA Tournament game last season, but he enjoyed the emotion of the moment after escaping on Sunday. “It feels like five million pounds off your shoulders when the buzzer went off,” Cauley-Stein said. “It was just a good feeling. Everyone was yelling and super hype and it was just a good win.” As Cauley-Stein and Kentucky’s players deservedly celebrate the victory today, we as college basketball fans should all celebrate the moment. Wichita State did not finish the 2013-14 season undefeated. Neither did Kentucky, or any other team for that matter. But what happened when Kentucky and Wichita State came together in the round of 32 was as close to perfection as we have witnessed this season. For all the conversation about unblemished records and the rest of it, it is worth taking a moment to appreciate the near-perfect result we saw between two teams that at least entertained the notion, as difficult as it is to achieve, of a season of perfection.

Brian Joyce (333 Posts)

Brian Joyce is an advanced metrics enthusiast, college hoops junkie, and writer for the SEC basketball microsite for Rush the Court.

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