In a weekend where there seemed to be more poor basketball than good, Kentucky and Wichita State gave the fans a game that epitomizes March Madness and the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky handed Wichita State their first loss of the season, showcasing their improved maturity and why they are a force to be reckoned with the remainder of the tournament.
The experience level coming into the game could not be more lopsided in favor of the Shockers. Wichita State was a Final Four participant last season, while most of the Kentucky rotation were seniors in high school watching at home. In fact, the whole Kentucky roster combined for only 10 minutes of NCAA Tournament experience, all courtesy of fifth-year senior Jon Hood. Kentucky needed its youngsters to step up, and that is exactly what they did, delivering their best performance of the season.
Kentucky had a physical Round of 64 game against Kansas State and looked like they could be without starting guard Andrew Harrison. Harrison suffered a hyperextended elbow Friday and his status was in doubt leading up to the game; you would not know he was hurt by his performance today. Harrison led the Wildcats in scoring, pouring in 20 points. He used his size effectively against the smaller Shocker guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, getting into the paint for easy baskets and earning trips to the foul line.
Not to be outdone by his twin brother, Aaron Harrison put together a solid game, scoring 19 points and knocking down four three-pointers in the process. Fellow freshman James Young also was efficient from behind the three-point line, knocking down three en route to 13 points.
The problem Kentucky has had throughout the season was poor guard play, and it was a factor at times today. The trio of the Harrison twins and Young filled up the scoring column, but the three combined for an ugly assist-to-turnover ratio, combining for 10 turnovers compared to only four assists. The Wildcats were picked up in the assist department by another freshman, Julius Randle.
The Zach Randolph-like Randle was a load in the paint, recording his NCAA leading 22nd double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds. But where he was most impressive was in distributing the ball, handing out a season-high six assists. Randle did not force anything in the game and instead letting it come to him, making the most of the opportunities Wichita State gave to him.
Kentucky may have won the game, but Wichita State showed that they were worthy of the No. 1 seed. Cleanthony Early poured in 31 points to go with seven rebounds, while running mate Baker added 20 of his own with five rebounds and two assists. They received bad luck with the draw they were given, but they performed extremely well. Kentucky right now is a buzz-saw and poised to make a deep run in the tournament as the youngsters lead the way.