John Clay: Sunday is Kentucky's chance to show it's something special

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 22, 2014 

ST. LOUIS — Potential is just potential until you do something.

Kentucky has another chance to do something.

When the potential-packed but No. 8-seed Wildcats play Wichita State at about 2:45 p.m. Sunday at the Scottrade Center in a third-round game of this NCAA Tournament, Kentucky has the chance to finally accomplish something special.

It can knock off the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region.

Once the subject of undefeated aspirations, it can be the first team to beat a team that hasn't lost since the Final Four of last season.

Last but not least, it can be the team that finally lived up to all the pre-season hype about its potential.

Thus far, the young Cats have missed out on almost every such opportunity. Their record is 1-6 against ranked opponents.

In November, they lost to Michigan State in Chicago. In December, they lost to Baylor in Arlington, Texas, and to North Carolina in Chapel Hill. After the first of the year, in three different venues — home, away and a neutral court — they lost to No. 1-ranked Florida.

True, John Calipari's club knocked off archrival and defending national champion Louisville way back in December, but the feel-good memories of that post-Christmas win were washed away by six conference defeats, including two to NIT-bound Arkansas, one to LSU and another at lowly South Carolina.

That was all before the John Calipari "tweak" and before the fresh start that came with the SEC Tournament, when the Cats played with a looseness missing during a late-season collapse. They handled LSU and Georgia before taking Florida to the final possession. They gained a new coat of confidence.

Friday night against Kansas State, in the program's first NCAA Tournament game since the 2012 title game, the Cats survived a slow, physical pace, holding the tough Big 12 team to just 49 points in a seven-point win.

"If they guard like that," Kansas State Coach Bruce Weber said early Saturday, standing in a hallway of the arena, "I think Kentucky proved they can play in a hard-fought, tough game."

Wichita State will be tougher — much tougher.

"Wichita State's got a lot of swag right now," UK center Willie Cauley-Stein said on Saturday.

The Shockers are the nation's No. 2 team in the polls for a very good reason. They are smart, savvy and well-coached. They've used the lost art of team play to conquer each opponent.

"That's what we do," said Fred VanVleet, the Shockers' sophomore guard. "We play together as a team."

If Kentucky has played well for four games, Wichita State has played well for two seasons.

Critics have banged the Shockers' schedule and conference affiliation. Their best non-conference win came at Saint Louis. They are the only Missouri Valley Conference member in the 68-team field.

The critics also question if the Shockers can match UK's athleticism, length and overall talent, even if that talent hasn't quite yet lived up to its billing.

"I've never seen a 19-year-old as big as (Julius) Randle in my life," said Ron Baker, Wichita State's sophomore forward in near wide-eyed wonder.

"Their big guys are like a total eclipse in there," said Gregg Marshall, the WSU coach.

Back in the UK locker room on Saturday, one of the bigs, Cauley-Stein, was asked just how close these Cats are to finally reaching their potential.

"I really don't know," he said. "I really can't answer that question. Since the change we made it's almost game-by-game, you're learning as you go on. Unfortunately, you're only guaranteed one game at a time."

So far in this NCAA Tournament, this is "the" game.

Wichita State can prove its post-season critics wrong.

Kentucky can prove its pre-season believers right.

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

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