Go for the tie next time, Marshall.
Sunday’s epic battle between Wichita State and Kentucky was a classic for the ages.
One that WSU needed to win, and didn’t.
Undefeated mid-major, but with no respect, against a top-flight program loaded with blue-chip recruits. Experienced Shockers who were in the Final Four last year against five freshmen starters, most of whom will be in the NBA next season.
The game lived up to the hype; its quality probably will top whatever mismatch the championship (heck, even the Final Four with all these Cinderella stories this year) spits out. The teams constantly traded leads and momentum swings. Any time the Wildcats tried to pull away, the Shockers answered with clutch shots. Both teams had more than their share of highlight plays and star performances. Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison and WSU’s Cleanthony Early put on a show as they led their teams.
Don’t forget to thank the Selection Committee for this matchup in the Round of 32 instead of the Final Four where it belonged
The Shockers proved they were just as good as any of the “big boys.” Dismissing an historic season because of one missed 3-point shot is foolish. Any doubters still out there clearly don’t know good basketball when they see it.
Something else that was there to be seen that might go more unnoticed is a continual growing concern for the state of basketball.
Kentucky was down 58-55 with 7:50 to go after the under-8 TV timeout. That’s when Harrison took over for Kentucky. But how exactly did he do it?
With free throws.
Through the next six minutes, when he gave UK a 75-71 lead with 43 seconds left, Harrison was 9-of-10 at the foul line. 9-of-10 during a 6:07 stretch. And it’s not like he was intentionally fouled at the end, either. All of his free throws were direct results of fouls called while he was driving to the basket. WSU at the line during that stretch? 2-of-3.
This is where the ugly dichotomy of basketball—both at the college and professional level—saps the fun and integrity of the game. Blue-chip players like Harrison are talented, and they are coached to play like it. Harrison played out of control and just barreled his way into the lane time and time again, and the Shockers were called for fouls every time, even though they defended the same way without fouling in the first half (Harrison even got away with a blatant charge). Heck, why wouldn’t he just crash into the lane like that every time if he’s getting the calls?
This isn’t an argument to say that UK only won because of this strategy or to whine about the officiating. But there’s a reason WSU needed to win this game. The Shockers played far better team basketball that required greater execution. They scored on four backdoor layups (that’s a ridiculously high number against a team that supposedly has four or five NBA-ready players, which it clearly doesn’t). UK had one such play, and it was more a lob after the Shockers didn’t switch quickly enough on a screen. Even with that, WSU defended the pick-and-roll with great effectiveness against players who are supposed to be able to blow by Shockers, a lowly mid-major group with just one Rivals.com Top 200 recruit coming out of high school (UK had four in the top 10).
But no, what prevailed was letting the “more athletic, star” players get to the free throw line repeatedly. How cliché.
Look at the NBA players who are in the top 10 in scoring. Most of them also rank in the Top 10 in free throw attempts per game. That’s why UK, a school that continually attracts the cream-of-the-crop recruits, is far more highly touted than a team like WSU; UK recruits more players who play NBA-style basketball.
And that’s all that gets looked at. Not the players who are better developed because they stayed in school longer and were better coached. That’s a stark contrast to the pressure top-flight players like KU’s Andrew Wiggins and Duke’s Jabari Parker (blue-chip stars who flopped in the NCAA tournament) have to deal. They’re told to be the best player on the court. They’re the ones who get the ‘Iso’ plays (the NBA’s go-to nowadays) called to them and are told to make something happen. The NBA is a player’s league, and the college game is becoming that.
WSU proved teams are capable of winning without doing that. Having Fred VanFleet's 3-pointer go in at the end might’ve served as a great reminder of that. But now, the tournament can just hum along the way it was supposed to, and the Selection Committee, along with most of America, can continue to disrespect mid-majors until they “prove” otherwise (even though the Shockers were ahead of Louisville by 10 points with five minutes left in lat year’s Final Four).
Now, UK gets to face rival Louisville in the Sweet 16, just as the Selection Committee wanted. And WSU’s run at what would’ve been one of the most inspiring and impressive seasons in NCAA history is wasted.
What a shame for the game of basketball.
I’m just saying.