It was one week ago Sunday that the NCAA Tournament Selections Committee members shared their handiwork with the world, releasing the bracket that launched a thousand quips – if not howls of derision. It was not their best work.
And yet, through their stumbles and bumbles, the pairing of an under-seeded Kentucky, at number eight, and top-seeded Wichita State in St. Louis Sunday afternoon was accidental genius. Yes, as it turns out, the game was worthy of regional, if not championship game status. But who knows if both teams would have played as brilliantly at any other time in the tournament as they did on this day.
If you’re a UK fan, would you change anything about this victory? I know some of you want to see your favorites win every game by 50. But admit it - the shared experience, whether you were at the game or parked in front of your flat screen, was something you’ll never forget.
Had Fred VanVleet sunk the last shot of the game, ruining Kentucky’s 78-76 victory, the Big Blue Nation would have been heartbroken – but not surprised. It was that kind of game.
"I hope it goes down as a great one,” said Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, “and I'm not ashamed to come out on the losing end."
John Calipari spoke to the level of play as well. "You all understand this was an Elite Eight game,” he told the media later. “The winner of this should have gone to the Final Four."
And now, if the Wildcats do make a return trip to Arlington, Texas, they’ll have to go through the Louisville Cardinals, another under-seeded ballclub. But they’re not under-appreciated by Calipari, who told CBS after the game that U of L might be playing the best basketball of any team in the country.
Maybe so, but the Cards’ win over St. Louis yesterday was no work of art, not anything like the Wildcats’ victory over the undefeated Shockers. "We knew we were going to have to play every possession,” said Andrew Harrison. “It’s just a joy."
Either one of the Harrison twins using the word “joy” seems a bit of an upset in and of itself. Both have struggled throughout the season, trying to corral their body language as they attempted to ignore the critics, some of them in Kentucky blue, who labeled them a bust, and worse.
Perhaps it was the pre-SEC Tournament conversation with their father, who told them not to worry about supporting the family with NBA paychecks; maybe it was the fact that they shut off their phones, so as to avoid social media criticism; or it just might have been one of Calipari’s “tweaks.” Whatever, they’ve been different players in the post season.
Calipari admitted part of Andrew’s problem was… his coach. "I did not do a great job with him early in the year – and I’m the first to admit it – but I did later," he said.
Wichita State did a magnificent job of taking away two of UK’s three bigs. Willie Cauley-Stein, thought by most of us Basketball Bennies to be the key to victory in this one, finished with only four points and two rebounds in 23 minutes, although he did block two shots and make a steal. Dakari Johnson had just three points and two boards in 20 minutes.
That left the brunt of the work in the paint to Julius Randle, and he was up to it. With Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins already sidelined, the best freshman remaining in the NCAA Tournament field scored 13 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and dished out six assists, adding a block and a steal. Impressive numbers, but merely complementary to what the Harrisons accomplished.
They combined for 39 points, Andrew leading the Wildcats with 20. And this was a game he thought he might miss, after hyper-extending his right elbow in the win over Kansas State on Friday. He told the media he thought about sitting this one out, but then figured he had to give it a go.
Wise decision. But not totally unexpected. "I've known him for a little while,” Aaron said, “so I knew he was going to play."
Because he gutted it out, Andrew joined with his look-alike brother, and the rest of his brothers-in-blue, in one of the greatest upsets in the history of a storied program.
Yes, it was just a second-round game (third, if you count those play-ins) but it came against an undefeated, number-one seed.
Should the match-up have happened later in the bracket? Of course. But, tell the truth – would you change a thing?
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)