Wichita State reserve Rashard Kelly acknowledged the out-sized shadow Kentucky casts on college basketball.
“They’re elite,” he said. “You’ve got the top recruits coming to Kentucky. You’ve got the Nike Elite gear. They get all the Nike gear. They’re elite in everything. We are trying to be elite one day, too, Nike.”
Laughter erupted at an NCAA Tournament news conference Saturday. There were more giggles a few minutes later when Wichita State Coach Gregg Marshall showed up wearing a T-shirt bearing the word “Elite” under a Nike swoosh.
“We have some Nike Elite stuff,” he said. “I have to take the big stage in order to wear it.”
Of course, Wichita State, the poster program for ambitious mid-major teams, joins Kentucky on the big stage Sunday in a round-of-32 NCAA Tournament game.
The Shockers’ players conceded the big letters on the college basketball marquee to Kentucky. They never made the UK recruiting Rolodex filled with five-star prospects.
“They never talked to me,” redshirt freshman point guard Landry Shamet said.
“Me either,” Kelly added. “Probably because I’m not 6-11, don’t have a 7-2 wingspan. But it’s all good.”
Wichita State hopes to win not by making more highlight plays, but by out-steadying Kentucky. The thought is the more fundamentally sound team can beat the team that commands more NBA attention.
We’re not really blessed with having a bunch of 7-footers and being more athletic and more skilled than everybody else. So you have to execute.
Landry Shamet, Wichita State guard
When asked if “execution team” was an accurate description of Wichita State, guard Conner Frankamp said, “It’s decently accurate. We really try to focus on making sure we do our sets right and doing what Coach says.”
Added Shamet, “We’re not really blessed with having a bunch of 7-footers and being more athletic and more skilled than everybody else. So you have to execute.”
Marshall protested mildly when it was suggested that Wichita State (31-4) excelled in doing the “little things” that win games.
“It’s interesting that a lot of people, and even we, refer to them as little things,” he said. “But those things aren’t so little. Boxing out. Communicating on defense. Executing. Setting a great screen. Being the first to the floor on a loose ball.
“Those aren’t little things. But those are things that you can control.”
Coach John Calipari and senior Dominique Hawkins conceded that Kentucky could do the little things better.
“Our team has gotten better,” Calipari said. “We really have. But, still there are gaps. And if you have a gap against this team, it will be bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, timeout. What just happened to us?”
Speaking of Bam (Adebayo), Hawkins cited UK’s double-double machine of a freshman as a reason the Cats might not diligently box out.
“I feel like we do it pretty well,” he said. “There are times we do break down and don’t box out and watch the ball. But Bam, he usually gets every rebound, so we just watch him.”
Our team has gotten better. We really have. But, still there are gaps. And if you have a gap against this team, it will be bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, timeout. What just happened to us?
Marshall spoke of three more experienced players testing Adebayo: fourth-year junior Shaquille Morris, junior and Estonia native Rauno Nurger and junior Darral Willis Jr.
“A three-headed monster at the five,” the Wichita State coach said. “So we’re going to keep those guys fresh. Bam, I’m sure he’s in great shape, but he’s going to need to be in great shape tomorrow.”
Wichita State’s rebounding prowess caught Calipari’s attention. The Shockers rank second nationally in rebound margin (plus 9.2).
“They viciously go after offensive rebounds,” Calipari said. “If you don’t rebound in the game, you don’t have a chance to beat them.”
Wichita State’s current 16-game winning streak, the longest active streak of any team in the NCAA Tournament, speaks to consistent effort. The Shockers have lost once since Dec. 17.
Shamet credited Marshall’s relentless coaching.
“We’ve got a great coach,” he said, “and he’s also a coach that’s rarely satisfied. You can’t always make him happy. So every day of film, even if we win by 20 or 30, he’s ripping us or whatever about this play or that play. So that goes a long way.”
(Wichita State will deploy) A three-headed monster at the five. So we’re going to keep those guys fresh. Bam, I’m sure he’s in great shape, but he’s going to need to be in great shape tomorrow.
Gregg Marshall, Wichita State coach
Kentucky intends for that journey to end Sunday. Backup big man Isaac Humphries downplayed the significance of Wichita State’s devotion to doing little things better than the opponent.
“Every team likes to think they’re good at the little things,” he said. “We come up against that sort of thing all the time. We’re really not too worried about that sort of stuff. We can handle that.”
Maybe so. But Wichita State’s combination of veteran experience, depth and attention to fundamentals seemed like a challenge for a Kentucky team coming off a less-than-stellar opening-game victory over Northern Kentucky.
Calipari summed it up. “You’ve got an unbelievable opponent (that) plays with heart and fight, and battles,” he said. “And you bring your team in, your young team, and say, let’s see what we are.”
Kentucky vs. Wichita State
What: NCAA Tournament South Regional round-of-32 game
When: About 2:40 p.m.
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 30-5, Wichita State 31-4
Series: Kentucky leads 1-0
Last meeting: Kentucky won 78-76 on March 23, 2014, at the NCAA Tournament in St. Louis.