INDIANAPOLIS — For the Wichita State and Kentucky players on Sunday, especially the vast majority who were not in college in March of 2014, the schools’ last meeting in the NCAA Tournament is ancient history.
For the rest of us, it is an impossible memory to disregard at a time such as this.
Then, the schools met in the second round amid controversy that then-unbeaten Wichita State, a No. 1 seed, was stuck facing Kentucky, talented as usual but given an uncharacteristic No. 8 seed.
The Wildcats won, 78-76, in one of the most memorable early round games in recent NCAA history, one that most agreed should have come in a later round.
This time, the tables have turned. Kentucky (30-5) is a No. 2 seed, and is stuck facing Wichita State (31-4), which has won 16 games in a row and which many in college basketball believe was unfairly seeded at No. 10.
Add to that Wichita State having a collective chip on its shoulder as a mid-major facing mighty Kentucky and, well, this could be fun.
“They’re elite; you’ve got the top recruits coming to Kentucky,” Wichita State forward Rashard Kelly said on Saturday. “You’ve got the Nike Elite gear. They get all the Nike gear. They’re elite in everything. We are trying to be elite one day, too. Nike.”
Kelly did not crack a smile, even as reporters did. It turned out he only was warming up. Why did the 6-7 junior not get a recruiting whiff from Kentucky? “Probably because I’m not 6-11, don’t have a 7-2 wingspan,” he said. “But it’s all good.”
The Shockers are not new to this. They have been to the NCAA Tournament six years in a row, including a Final Four, and have produced their share of NBA players. That 2014 team included future Knicks Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker.
But sometimes they have to be a bit more patient with players than their bigger-brand opponents.
“The guys they bring in are a little more ready-made for the NBA with the size, athleticism, and [coach John Calipari] gets them better, and he gets them prepared for the NBA as well as anyone,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “Ours take a little more time in the incubator.”
Marshall showed his team video of the 2014 game despite the almost total roster turnover just to demonstrate how Wichita State countered Kentucky’s size and athleticism.
“I didn’t even realize until after the game what a great game it was, because I hate giving up that many points,” he said.
But he did realize that the loss proved to skeptics his team was as good as its record — and seeding — suggested it was.
“In the end, it took a loss to validate our team,” he said, “which I think is really ironic, and sad.”
The rematch, and another chance for validation, comes Sunday.