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SportsColumnistsGreg Logan

Unbeaten Wichita State hardly a big favorite vs. Kentucky

Wichita State's Ron Baker, center, takes a photo

Wichita State's Ron Baker, center, takes a photo with Fred VanVleet, left, and Cleanthony Early, right, after their victory over Indiana State in an NCAA college basketball game in the championship of the Missouri Valley Conference men's tournament, Sunday, March 9, 2014, in St. Louis Credit: AP / Bill Boyce

ST. LOUIS - Considering that Wichita State came into the NCAA Tournament undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the country, it seemed a sign of disrespect when the selection committee loaded the Midwest Regional with a collection of giants to test the Shockers to see if they are real or a product of watered-down Missouri Valley competition.

Upon reflection, the committee might have done what WSU coach Gregg Marshall couldn't on his own -- schedule a power like preseason No. 1 pick Kentucky at a neutral site within easy traveling distance of Wichita. The only big-time team Marshall could lure to his home-court this season was Tennessee, and that was part of a home-and-home contract.

"I think if I got to know President Obama and he did an executive order, maybe an amendment, somehow we could get Kentucky to our place,'' Marshall said Saturday with a smile. "But short of that, I don't think it is going to happen.''

Well, it's going to happen this afternoon at Scottrade Center in a third-round NCAA Tournament game. You would think the first team in NCAA history to start a season 35-0, a top-seeded veteran team coming off a Final Four appearance, would be heavily favored over eighth-seeded Kentucky, which starts five freshmen. But you would be wrong.

Perception depends on your angle. Marshall appreciates the perception of former coaches, such as Bob Knight and Bill Frieder, who told him they like watching his defense-oriented, physical, unselfish team play. "That makes me feel good,'' Marshall said.

But he also understands the fascination with Kentucky (25-10) and coach John Calipari's high-end recruits, many of whom are making a one-year detour on their way to the NBA. "With Kentucky, you have seven McDonald's All-Americans,'' Marshall said. "You have guys who will play at the highest level very soon.''

That is a world with which Marshall is unfamiliar. Wichita State has a great basketball heritage, but it sits in southwestern Kansas, which is very remote on the recruiting map.

Asked if he attempted to recruit any of Kentucky's players, Marshall said, "We didn't even send a form letter to any of them. I didn't even know who their players were. I didn't watch them in the AAU. That's a different level of recruiting.

"People like uncles, cousins and my dad asked me, 'What do you think of Julius Randle?' I didn't even know what he looked like until this season when I watched him on television.''

Today, Marshall gets a closeup view of the athletic 6-9 forward. No doubt, plenty of NBA scouts will be interested to see how he handles the defensive pressure Wichita State will put on him and 7-foot sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein. Then, the Shockers have to stop the Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, on the perimeter.

Marshall believes this game will be decided by who rebounds and gets the most steals. He's relying on the tough, under-the-radar guys he recruits, such as senior forward Cleanthony Early from Middletown, N.Y., and sophomore guards Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker, who hails from Scott City, Kan. (pop. 3,816).

"We don't even recruit the second level down from Kentucky's recruits,'' Marshall said.

For Marshall, it's a matter of finding coachable guys who are willing to stay long enough to learn how to beat the giants of the world like Kentucky.

The Shockers may be 35-0, but they know they're not big favorites Sunday. They know that doesn't matter. "The biggest thing we carried over from last year is just playing the game,'' Baker said. "What matters is the five players on the court . . . and how you play the game.''

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