Ding dong, the wicked Wichita of the Midwest is dead.
Kentucky (26-10) defeated the Wichita State Shockers (35-1) to reach the Sweet 16 in the Midwest region of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday.
It is impossible to completely stop an electric current, but the current used to mercilessly electrocute every one of its opponents by the Shockers this season was finally diverted into the ground by the Wildcats.
Despite the third-round loss, Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall catapulted himself into the “top-10 coaches in college basketball” discussion after an incredible Final Four run last year and a nearly-immaculate season. However, as I have already written, there is a reason John Calipari is the second-highest paid head coach in college basketball.
Coach Cal did not guarantee a Sweet 16 appearance and the smooth-talking Italian certainly did not promise a ninth banner would be raised en route to a 40-0 season.
An ecstatic faction of the Big Blue faithful did.
Unlike overjoyed fans and bloodthirsty college-basketball analysts paid by ratings-driven sports networks, Coach Cal had perspective after the finalization of the “greatest recruiting class in the history of basketball” was announced last summer.
“We’re young. We’re 18 and 19 year olds.” Calipari repeated this to a plethora of reporters throughout the season in response to the onslaught of questions regarding the Wildcats’ struggles.
Frustration increased rapidly in the minds of Wildcat fans after each loss, regardless of Calipari’s plea for patience. It did not matter that out of all Kentucky’s ten losses, only two (both against Florida) came by more than nine points.
Kentucky was near the precipice of greatness all season, but cynics pointed to the same recruiting strategy that resulted in a championship in 2012 as the reason for the close losses.
In the first ever article I published for isportsweb on Feb. 27, the first comment I received came from a person with the alias “sifjr2.”
The reader said, “Many fans are sick and tired of Calipari constantly whining about how young this team is. Solution? Stop recruiting “one and dones”!” (He also referred to the piece as a “dumb article.”)
This reader is certainly not representative of all Kentucky fans in any capacity, but the harsh criticism of the man who led Kentucky to its eighth national title was not unprecedented.
Critics of Calipari’s coaching ability were abruptly silenced after the Shockers three-point attempt bounced off the rim as the final buzzer sounded on Sunday. Coach Cal started five freshmen and backed them up with two sophomores (and one senior for two minutes) to defeat the juggernaut.
Wichita State featured six upper-classmen in the rotation, including four seniors. One of those seniors, Cleanthony Early, dominated the game with 31 points.
His performance and the advantage of possessing nine players with Final Four experience against a rotation of players without any significant playing time in the NCAA Tournament were insufficient against the young Wildcats.
Exceptional coaching from Calipari and the momentum of a team “peaking at the right time” were the contributing factors that led to the third round upset in St. Louis.
All the rational expectations placed on the Kentucky freshmen finally came to fruition. Andrew Harrison’s hyper-extended elbow miraculously improved his shooting ability as he led the Wildcats with 20 points. Twin brother Aaron played with a new-found confidence and chipped in 19 points. James Young picked his spots from the three-point line and drained three crucial 3s. Julius Randle was self-sacrificing and led the team with six assists. Dakari Johnson denied the under-sized Shockers at the goal with stifling defense that did not result in a jaw-dropping stat line.
Every high school All-American on the Wildcats found their niche and bought in to the goal of winning. It only took 35 games for Coach Cal to make this cohesiveness happen, so is he still “just a recruiter?”
Patience is one of the toughest qualities for human beings to achieve and maintain. Faithful members of the Big Blue Nation captured that quality despite the fall from preseason-number-one-ranking grace.
For the cynical members of BBN who wrote off the Wildcats this season long before picking Wichita State to advance in their tournament brackets, only one thing needs to be written now.
The young Wildcats are going to the Sweet 16.