ST. LOUIS -- John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats entered this season No. 1 in the preseason polls despite the fact that the guru of one-and-done players was almost totally reliant on another stellar freshman class.
The bloom quickly came off that rose as Calipari's kids played their way out of the top 25 and entered the NCAA Tournament as an eighth seed.
But after opening with a 56-49 second-round win over Kansas State Friday night at Scottrade Center, Kentucky's freshmen will take on 35-0 Wichita State, the No. 2 team in the country, in the third-round game the NCAA selection committee set up.
Forward Julius Randle, a candidate for the top pick in the NBA draft who led Kentucky with 19 points and 15 rebounds, said he watched a little bit of the Shockers' walkover win against Cal Poly, the only losing team in the NCAA field. "I saw a little of the first half," he said. "I just know they're a great defensive team."
Although its all-freshman starting lineup has as much offensive firepower as any team in the country, Kentucky (25-10) proved itself on the defensive end against K-State (20-13). They held the Big 12 team to 35.8 percent shooting and built a 40-28 rebounding edge. When KSU cut a 12-point Kentucky lead to 35-33, the bluegrass Wildcats put together a 14-5 run to move ahead 49-38.
"It was a little nerve-wracking," Calipari said. "None of these guys had ever been in an NCAA Tournament game."
That includes key sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein, who had eight rebounds, four blocks and four steals, and Alex Poythress. They went to the NIT a year ago and were upset in the first round by Robert Morris.
Of course, Wichita State made it to the national semifinals last season, and despite a weak Missouri Valley Conference schedule this year, the Shockers are as tough a defensive team as anyone in the country. Kansas State coach Bruce Weber looks for a defensive battle.
"Wichita State has had an unbelievable season," Weber said. "They're so sound defensively. It will probably be a game like tonight. The way Kentucky guarded, they're going to be able to match what Wichita does."
The question is whether Kentucky will struggle as much to score as it did against K-State. Aaron Harrison was the only other Kentucky player in double figures with 18 points, and the Wildcats were only 4-for-15 on three-pointers. Harrison did a decent defensive job on leading KSU scorer Marcus Foster (15), and Weber's team also got 11 from Southwell and 10 from Thomas Gipson.
Before the tournament began, Cauley-Stein predicted Kentucky would "shock the world." Calipari scolded him for that one, knowing it's not supposed to be a shock when Kentucky wins.