The opening weekend of the NCAA tournament reminds me every single year why it’s my favorite sporting event in the world, and the start of this year's Big Dance was no different.
We saw shades of Kemba Walker in Shabazz Napier’s performance. After Dayton's two amazing wins over national powers Ohio State and Syracuse, America has its Cinderella. Arizona, Virginia, and Florida reminded everyone why they were number one seeds, while Duke, Kansas, and Villanova had everyone questioning their seeds. Teams like Stanford and Tennessee clearly stated that not only do they belong in the tournament, but that they can also compete with the big boys.
A lot of statements were made throughout the college basketball landscape this weekend. However, none were louder than the one made by John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats.
In a classic battle, the Wildcats defeated previously unbeaten Wichita State Shockers and are now moving on to face archrival Louisville in the Sweet 16. There has been debate after debate as to whether or not the Shockers deserved to be a number one seed. After Sunday’s game, the debate must be put to rest: They were more than deserving.
Not only did Kentucky beat an elite team, they proved that they belong among the elite.
The Shockers played an outstanding game against a bigger, faster, more athletic team. Coming up just short at the buzzer, the Shockers have proven that no matter what happens in the next two weeks, they are still one of the best teams in the nation.
This game's result wasn't about the Shockers, though; it was about the Wildcats. We knew the Shockers were elite, but we didn't know what to make of Kentucky just yet. The Wildcats finally got their talent to come together, and man, did it look good. When the team struggled, its critics said that all this talent couldn’t mesh, that the Wildcats were overrated, and they couldn’t beat any elite teams.
Not only did they beat an elite team, they proved that they belong among the elite. After this win, the Kentucky haters must back down.
Andrew Harrison, the most criticized Wildcat all year long, played the best game of his young college career, with 20 points on 6-for-9 shooting. Lottery lock Julius Randle dazzled with multiple NBA-level post moves, ending with 13 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists.
Ever since John Calipari went to an all-freshmen starting five—consisting of Randle, Harrison, his brother Aaron, James Young and Dakari Johnson—and brought sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress off the bench, the team has found its rhythm. They're all clicking at just the right time.
With the blockbuster showdown against Louisville looming, the Wildcats' hopes are riding high. They defeated the Cardinals 73-66 back in December at Rupp Arena. This Louisville team will also be without Chane Behanan, who played in that game. He has since been dismissed from the team, and will not be there to give the Cardinals frontcourt depth.
One of the big issues Wichita State had was Kentucky’s length. Fred Van Vleet had a very difficult time not only defending Andrew Harrison, but scoring over him. No Wildcat starter is shorter than 6’6", so the 5’11" Van Vleet had a rough night.
Louisville’s backcourt consists of the 5’10" Chris Jones, and the 6’0" Russ Smith. While Smith plays much bigger than he is, that doesn’t take away the fact that he and Jones will be physically outmatched on the defensive end.
The same can be said for Luke Hancock, who will be matched up with likely first round draft pick James Young. Young has Hancock's three-point shooting ability and is twice the athlete he is. Smith, the Cardinals leading scorer and a likely All-American, said himself after the December defeat that Kentucky is a difficult matchup for them.
It seems like everything is falling right into place for Calipari. In the five years in Lexington, he has made the NCAA tournament's second weekend four times. People will still oppose Calipari’s style, but if he keeps making deep tournament runs nearly every year, the doubters will become few and far between.