UK has ironic chance to spoil perfect season


Kentucky guard/forward James Young (1) shoots the ball during the NCAA Tournament vs. Kansas State at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Mo., on Friday, March 21, 2014. Photo by Emily Wuetcher

By David Schuh | Men’s basketball columnist

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UK was supposed to be Wichita State University.

That seems bizarre given the historical stature of each program, but it’s the ironic truth. Six months ago, media, fans, coaches and players alike said these Cats had the ability to do what had never been done — finish the season 40-0.

Now, as the Cats prepare to play the 35-0 Shockers on Sunday in the third round of the NCAA Tournament, it has all come full circle.

UK is the underdog with an opportunity to spoil someone else’s perfect season.

Wichita State is really good. Sure, the Shockers haven’t played a tournament team since Dec. 22 (North Carolina Central University). But on tape, they are impressive.

They’re not as big as UK, but they play hard, rank 25th in the country in rebounding and wreak havoc with their half-court defense.

They may have played a weak schedule, but any talk that the Shockers will be no match for UK is ridiculous.

And it doesn’t help that Wichita State’s biggest asset is mental.

Despite a perfect record to date, the Shockers have been viewed as an underdog all season. Not only are they the third 1-seed in the tournament, they were placed in what most believe to be the most difficult region.

It was more bulletin board material, more motivation to stow away for a team that has consistently stuck to the plan all year.

“We’ve got great players that are easy to coach, that follow a game plan, that stay steadfast in their belief that they want to be special,” Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall said.

“And they’d like the winning streak to continue.”

That’s been a tall task, one that Calipari is very familiar with. He has had three teams that have won at least 19 games in a row to start a season, the latest being the 2009-10 Cats.

He knows the pressure that accompanies those unblemished streaks, and thus what Marshall has had to handle with each passing victory.

“I’ve been through what he’s been through,” Calipari said. “Mainly, trying to keep a team focused on staying in the moment when you’re undefeated and you’re trying to run the table … He’s done a masterful job.”

Yet as Calipari sits on the other side this time, Sunday night is just another game. It could be the last of his team’s tumultuous season, but he wants to defer anything that glorifies what is the most compelling game of the 2014 tournament’s opening weekend.

“At this point, I just don’t want my team to make this game bigger than it is,” Calipari said. “It’s a basketball game.”

It’s also a game that will tell a lot about its winner. Wichita State can further validate its historic season, with the confidence that it can beat a team with elite talent.

UK can continue its sudden yet surprising postseason run and attempt to validate its own preseason prognostications.

The Cats can make history on Sunday. It just won’t be the way they originally planned.