John Clay: UK's next game will have much more fanfare

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 22, 2014 

ST. LOUIS — The NCAA Tournament is all glitz and glamour. It's all about the big show with the bright lights and the big audience.

For young Kentucky's tournament debut, however, it was all about putting on the hard hat and doing some hard work

Friday night's 56-49 win over Kansas State wasn't necessarily pretty, but it did earn the required passing grade — the Cats passing on to the next round for a Sunday matchup with the Midwest Regional's No. 1 seed, unbeaten Wichita State.

In many ways, UK's win was about what we had expected.

The taller, longer SEC Cats outrebounded the Big 12 Cats 40-28. The winners grabbed 13 offensive rebounds, led by five from Willie Cauley-Stein, compared to 19 defensive boards for Kansas State.

Kentucky's length on the wings bothered K-State as well. Bruce Weber's club missed all seven of its three-point shots in the first half before warming up to make five of 14 in the final 20 minutes.

The most impressive aspect of Kentucky's game may have been its composure, considering the slower pace of play. Kansas State, known for its physical style, played more of a slowdown scheme, trying to work the ball around for favorable matchups. UK kept its poise.

Kansas State shot 35.8 percent on the way to a season-low 49 points. (K-State scored 52 points against Long Beach State.) This is the same Kansas State team that scored 85 points in its Big 12 Tournament loss to Iowa State.

And Kentucky was helped by the fact that Kansas State missed six of its 12 free throws. But then those Wildcats came into the game shooting just 65 percent from the foul line. Kentucky made 14 of its 21 shots from the foul line.

Two of UK's free throws came before the clock even started. Kansas State was assessed a technical foul when a walk-on dunked in warm-ups — an NCAA no-no — and Andrew Harrison made one of two technical free throws before the opening tip.

It was that kind of night.

Now the question is what sort of day will Sunday be, with the team that was pre-season No. 1 (that being Kentucky) meeting the first team (that being Wichita State) to enter the NCAA Tournament unbeaten since UNLV in 1991.

It was difficult to garner much useful information from Wichita State's 64-37 romp over an overmatched Cal Poly in Friday night's first game at Scottrade Center.

There is a reason that Cal Poly entered the game 14-19, after all.

Still, even against lesser competition, you could tell the Shockers are well-coached and well-drilled. Gregg Marshall's team was credited with 17 assists on its 23 field goals. Point guard Fred VanVleet had eight of those assists. He's an obvious key.

Cleanthony Early scored 23 points for the Shockers, and the 6-foot-8 senior plays enough on the wing to be a troublesome matchup.

It will be interesting to see what defensive approach Calipari takes.

If Kentucky was happy to get its win, the Cats were also no doubt happy to get this first tournament game out of the way.

If its overall game lacked some of the energy and precision we saw during last weekend's SEC Tournament, it also survived the first-game jitters, especially for a lineup that started five freshmen.

Come to think of it, this was the first NCAA Tourney game for pretty much the entire team — even sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein, who made a good first impression, grabbing eight rebounds, blocking four shots and recording four steals against one of his home-state Kansas schools.

With the first one out of the way, now the Cats can settle in for some more work — much more difficult work — against a team that hasn't lost a basketball game in nearly a calendar year.

Are they up to the task?

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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