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.

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Rushed Reactions: #8 Kentucky 78, #1 Wichita State 76

Posted by Adam Stillman on March 23rd, 2014

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Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion@RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregion.

Three Key Takeaways.

Cleanthony Early was outstanding for the Shockers. (AP)

Cleanthony Early scored 31 points in a losing effort. (AP)

  1. It was the best game of the year. Kentucky and Wichita State played an absolute classic. Not only was it the best NCAA Tournament game this season, it will likely stay that way. And it easily topped any regular season game simply because all that was on the line. The Wildcats and Shockers threw punch after punch, made run and after run, until Fred Van Vleet’s three clanked off the rim at the buzzer. It’s unfortunate that one of these teams had to lose. This game was fitting of a national championship game rather than a round of 32 game, and it may have been the best round of 32 game in the history of the Big Dance.
  2. Wichita State belongs among the nation’s elite. The Shockers were counted out all year long. It seemed like half the nation thought they weren’t good enough. Well, the detractors need to close their mouths. I don’t care that they were the first #1 seed to lose. They played a magnificent basketball game they certainly could have won, and it’s a real shame the Shockers will be going home early. A brilliant season that started with 35 straight wins ended in disappointment. But that shouldn’t take anything away from what the Shockers accomplished this year. Wichita State can play with anybody.
  3. Kentucky played like 40-0 Kentucky. Remember before the season began when there was all that conversation about preseason #1 Kentucky going 40-0? Well, the Wildcats finally played like the team they were expected to be on Sunday afternoon. They were focused, they competed unbelievably hard for 40 minutes, they defended, and they hit shots. The heralded freshman class lived up to its preseason billing. They were absolutely terrific in scoring 68 of Kentucky’s points. From Julius Randle to the Harrison twins to James Young, they were magnificent — if, and it’s big if, but if Kentucky can continue to play at this level, there’s no reason the Wildcats can’t cut down the nets in Arlington, Texas, as national champions two weeks from now.

Star of the Game: Cleanthony Early, Wichita State. Yes, even in a losing effort. The senior forward poured in a game-high 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting. He went 4-of-6 from beyond the arc and 3-of-3 from the free-throw line. Early pulled down seven rebounds, didn’t commit a turnover, and recorded a steal and a block. Early hit big shot after big shot in the second half, and threw down a monster posterizing dunk in the opening half. The only thing he did wrong was a missed layup with three minutes remaining in the tight contest that would have given Wichita State a three-point lead.

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Award Tour: Doug McDermott Wins National Player of the Year

Posted by Jameson Fleming (@JamesonFleming) on March 13th, 2014

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Jameson Fleming is an RTC columnist who also works for CBSSports.com as the site’s social media editor. You can follow him on Twitter @JamesonFleming.

Picking a 10th player to fill out the National Player of the Year rankings was agonizingly hard. There were so many tremendous options like rankings stalwart Tyler Ennis, who finally fell out of the Top 10 thanks to his poor play during Syracuse’s struggles. Then there’s Bryce Cotton and T.J. Warren. Providence is closer to the NCAA Tournament than North Carolina State, but both stars have had incredible seasons. Cotton is averaging more than 40 MINUTES per game and is single-handedly willing the Friars to the Big Dance. Warren has been nothing short of spectacular for the Wolfpack. While he won ACC Player of the Year, on a national scale his team’s lack of success kept him out of these rankings. There’s also Marcus Smart, who turned in an impressive five-game stretch to put Oklahoma State back into the Tournament picture comfortably. His fellow Big 12 stud Melvin Ejim took home the league’s Player of the Year honors. Kyle Anderson has had a Shabazz Napier-like season for the Bruins, except he did it as a 6’9″ point guard.

Doug McDermott proved time and time again that he was the premier standout this season. (AP)

Doug McDermott proved time and time again that he was the premier standout this season. (AP)

Player of the Year

10. Marcus Paige – North Carolina. Last Week: Not Ranked
2013-14 stats: 17.1 PPG, 4.5 APG, 120.6 ORtg

After a long absence from the Top 10, North Carolina’s Marcus Paige finally returns thanks to dominant play in the ACC. Before losing to Duke in the regular season finale, UNC had won 12 consecutive games thanks to Paige’s leadership. During the last 13 outings, Paige has averaged 17.6 points per game. Even when he’s not scoring, the Tar Heels’ sophomore impacts the game as a passer, but also a defender. Against Notre Dame, Paige shut the door on an upset attempt by blocking a last-second layup at the end of regulation.

9. Andrew Wiggins – Kansas. Last Week: 8
2013-14 stats: 16.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 113.9 ORtg

All season long, fans have been waiting for Andrew Wiggins to explode and have a Kevin Durant-like game. The Kansas freshman finally delivered in a loss at West Virginia without Joel Embiid. Wiggins dropped an efficient 41 points to give scouts a signature performance and a chance to remember why he should be the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. His shot chart from that game is a thing of beauty.

Shot chart via CBSSports.com

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Wichita State Makes History on its Way to the NCAA Tournament

Posted by Adam Stillman on March 9th, 2014

Twenty-three years ago. That’s the last time a college basketball team entered the NCAA Tournament undefeated. Until now. The Wichita State Shockers completed their inexorable march toward regular season perfection with an 83-69 victory against Indiana State in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title game Sunday afternoon at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Thirty-four times opponents attempted to end Wichita State’s bid for perfection, and 34 times they failed. The 1990-91 UNLV team that entered the NCAA Tournament at 30-0 will no longer be the answer to a modern-day trivia question. That honor now belongs to Wichita State. “I wouldn’t say it was a celebration or a relief, but we understand what we accomplished is something special,” Wichita State forward Cleanthony Early said. “At the same time we still have business to take care of.” Added Wichita State guard Fred Van Vleet: “We’re not going to hide from it. We’re going to embrace it and appreciate it. This stuff doesn’t happen.”

Wichita Has Surprised Everyone On Its Way to Unbeaten Heading Into Selection Sunday (credit: TSN/Ryan Fagan)

Wichita Has Surprised Everyone On Its Way to Unbeaten Heading Into Selection Sunday (credit: TSN/Ryan Fagan)

Let’s forget the omnipresent strength-of-schedule argument surrounding the Shockers. Let’s forget the detractors who won’t be satisfied until Wichita State proves itself in the Big Dance. Let’s celebrate the accomplishment for what it is. Wichita State is just the second team in history to begin the season with 34 straight wins. The other? That UNLV squad that reached the Final Four at 34-0 before falling to Duke. This is one of the biggest stories in the history of college basketball. The Shockers pulled off a feat that’s only been done once before. And should they — with their inevitable #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament — be able to avoid the first #16 over #1 upset in Big Dance history, Wichita State would stand alone as the only team to start a college basketball season with 35 consecutive victories. “It’s got to be [one of the greatest stories in college basketball history],” Van Vleet said. “You’re talking about 34 up, 34 down. I don’t care who you’re playing or where you’re at or where you’re from, 34-0 is 34-0.”

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Final Four Profiles In-Depth: Wichita State Shockers

Posted by Chris Johnson on April 2nd, 2013

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Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn

With the possible exception of Wichita State, there are no earth shattering secrets to reveal about the four teams remaining in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. This Final Four comes packaged with a little bit of everything: the odds-on favorite to win the whole thing (Louisville); a 900-win coach with a legendary zone defense at his disposal (Syracuse); a fifth-place Big Ten team catching fire at just the right time (Michigan); and the Shockers, the barely name-recognizable MVC power whose four-win run has not been given its proper due. It is a fun mix that sets up any number of possible outcomes in Atlanta this weekend. Will Louisville continue its robotic obliteration in the national semifinal and final rounds? Will Wichita State “shock” (better to get that pun out of the way sooner than later) the college basketball world? Can Michigan’s youth handle the national spotlight? Or will Syracuse’s zone throw two more offenses into utter dysfunction?

The Biggest underdog left in the field, Wichita State faces a tough matchup Saturday against Louisville (Getty Images).

The Biggest underdog left in the field, Wichita State faces a tough match-up Saturday against Louisville (Getty Images).

All of these questions are worth thinking about, but the answers are never as clear as what’s on the surface. Louisville, at the moment, looks like the best team in the country; the Shockers look overmatched. But if you think even for a second analyzing Final Four match-ups is as simple as the above A > B comparison, think again: These games are inherently unpredictable. That’s what makes them fun – what makes this entire Tournament comprise the most entertaining three-week period in American sports.

By now you’re well-schooled on each of the remaining participants, but I’m going to try and take you deeper, to dig beneath the superficial qualities that make both match-ups objectively simple to figure out. Here, I’ll take you in different directions, raise hopefully enlightening statistical analysis and maybe, by the end, you’ll have a greater sense of how each team stands going into what should be another excellent weekend of NCAA Tournament hoops.

To start off our team preview series, which you can expect each day from now until Friday, the least known commodity on the block, Wichita State, is up to bat.

Pre-NCAA Tournament Capsule. One year removed from earning a #5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, a highly successful 27-6 win season and an MVC regular season championship, Wichita State entered 2012-13 with rightfully lowered expectations. You lose your top five scorers from a year ago, enter an overall improved league with an even more improved chief rival (Creighton), and you get the feeling a return trip to the NCAA Tournament maybe just isn’t in the cards this season. This was set up to be a textbook transition year, a season to take inventory and reload for the future. The spoils of 2011-12 – an at-large Tournament berth, regular season conference championship, that kind of stuff – were pretty much off the table. Now Gregg Marshall’s team has not only exceeded last season’s first-round Tourney knockout, but find themselves two wins away from the completely unthinkable: a first-ever national championship.

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Rushed Reactions: #9 Wichita State 70, #2 Ohio State 66

Posted by AMurawa on March 30th, 2013

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Andrew Murawa is reporting from the West Regional in Los Angeles, CA this weekend.

  1. Tekele Cotton Ain’t Scared. To set the scene, a 20-point lead with 11 minutes left had turned into a three-point lead with under three minutes remaining. The Shockers had committed five turnovers on their previous six possessions and hadn’t made a field goal in nearly five minutes. Wichita State players were arguing with each other, looking over at the bench at every loose ball for some sort of help and checking the clock, which was moving far too slow for their liking, at every chance they got. A game that had once been a snoozer looked very much like one that was going to turn into a surprising Ohio State comeback. But after breaking through Buckeye pressure and getting the ball in the halfcourt, the ball found its way to Tekele Cotton with less than ten seconds on the shot clock. Primarily known as a defender and dirty work type of player, Cotton, however, stepped into the three as calm and as cool as you would want, as if the world around him weren’t going to hell. And it was pure. Nothing but net. In that moment, one player putting aside the enormity of the situation and handling his business as if he were all alone in the gym, much of that confusion and disorder disappeared. And he wasn’t done yet. On the next offensive possession, after Fred Van Vleet missed and end-of-shot-clock three on a possession where the Shockers never got the ball inside the three-point line , Cotton tracked down the offensive rebound and turned a wasted 35-second possession into a 1:10 possession that ended in a Van Vleet jumper. Suffice it to say that likely without Cotton, the Shockers may have gotten shocked themselves.

    Demetric Williams Spending Some Quality Time With The West Regional Trophy. Williams, Despite Seeing His Minutes Slashed, Hit A Big Three In The First Half

    Demetric Williams Spending Some Quality Time With The West Regional Trophy. Williams, Despite Seeing His Minutes Slashed, Hit A Big Three In The First Half

  2. Athletically Even. You look at the names of the front of the jerseys and the conferences in which these teams play and you expect, sight unseen, the Buckeyes to be the physically dominant team. That was very much not the case today: Wichita State was every bit the athletic equal of the Buckeyes, with all the height, strength, quickness and bounciness of the more familiar Buckeyes. And you got the feeling right from the start that the Shockers new that. But the Buckeyes are used to playing against their athletic equals on a regular basis, while this was all new for the Shockers. After dominating for 30-some minutes, when the Buckeyes turned up the energy, the Shockers got flustered for a bit, but their athleticism allowed them to recover and fend off a late charge.
  3. Aaron Craft Exposed. The game plan for the Shockers on Craft was pretty clear: go under ball screens, give him looks at jumpers over a chance at penetration and go at him with the ball. And their game plan paid off. Craft did his a couple of his seven three-point attempts, but he missed all five of his two-point attempts and was at times a liability offensively, allowing the Shockers to sag off and clog up the lane. And defensively, on more than a couple occasions, Armstead blew by him on the way to the hole. Even more shockingly, when the Buckeyes finally started to show some pop, it was when Craft was on the pine for a brief two minute stretch. He came back on to help harass the Shockers into turnovers late, but this certainly wasn’t a great performance from the Buckeye point.

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