Very rarely do you get a matchup that comes with ready-made narratives like Sunday’s Kentucky-Wichita State game.
These were two teams that have been criticized all year for very different reasons: Kentucky for its arrogance and immaturity and Wichita State for its easy schedule and “unearned” status as one of the great teams in college basketball. Yet somehow, in a game with only one winner, both teams came away with their critics virtually silenced.
Kentucky, and particularly twin freshmen guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison, had been lambasted all year. What was once the most heralded recruiting class in college basketball history failed to gel in a historically awful way, with much of the fault targeted at the often shoot-first twins.
The Wildcats came into the tournament with one true quality win against Louisville at home and were expected to be dangerous but not a true contender.
Then, in the biggest game of their careers, the Harrison twins combined for 39 points and looked every bit the freaks they were recruited as. With one performance, Kentucky and the twins established that they were looking at the Final Four to the point where ESPN.com picked them as its No.-3 ranked team remaining.
However, those are just the particularly bountiful spoils of victory. What is much more rare is the winning loser. Wichita State is a winning loser.
I don’t care it lost, anyone who uses that game as evidence Wichita State was a fraud thanks to its undefeated record deserves to have their typing hands confiscated via blender.
It might not have returned to the Final Four, it might not have won, but Wichita State did what every one of its backers wanted it to do. It proved that it was a real team.
With an even more impressive performance than his 31 points suggested, Wichita State senior forward Cleanthony Early just became the guy who every NBA fan of a team that has a mid-to-late first-round pick wants to draft. The man drilled 3s, asserted himself with the ball and went toe-to-toe with a likely top-five NBA pick in Kentucky freshman forward Julius Randle.
Expanding on that, it needs to be emphasized what kind of Kentucky team Wichita State just lost to. It wasn’t the divided squad that consecutively lost to Arkansas and South Carolina. This was a team with at least five future NBA draft picks playing at their absolute peak. And an experienced but untested mid-major took them to the final possession, despite its conference player of the year, sophomore guard Fred VanVleet, facing foul trouble the entire game. This was an impressive loss, and one that showed Wichita State really has been one of the NCAA’s elite teams this year.
I came into this game expecting it to be overtaken by narratives, an example of “Everything that’s right with college basketball (Wichita State) versus what’s wrong (Kentucky).” But to call it that way isn’t fair to the athletes and coaches. Their level of play transcended incredible expectations and created a classic that simply can’t be used to criticize a single person involved.