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March Madness 2014: Kentucky finally plays up to its talent

It took the Wildcats all season to put together the pieces, but Kentucky's upset win over Wichita State on Sunday proved sometimes talent really does win out in March.

SB Nation 2014 NCAA March Madness Coverage

Kentucky secured what many called the best recruiting class of all time less than 24 hours after being eliminated from the 2013 NIT by Robert Morris. That was when Julius Randle made his commitment to join a class that already included guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison, wing James Young, center Dakari Johnson and power forward Marcus Lee. Kentucky had five players rated among the top 10 recruits by ESPN and six McDonald's All-Americans, the most one school had ever brought in at the same time.

Before most people had ever seen Kentucky's freshmen in action, blue "40-0" T-shirts were already available for purchase. It wasn't hard to see why Big Blue Nation was getting so carried away: the Wildcats went 38-2 and won the national championship in 2012, the last time they brought in a monster recruiting class. With sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress coming back to join John Calipari's historic recruiting class, it seemed like Kentucky had enough firepower for a decent replication of the team that blew the doors off college basketball only two years earlier.

Of course, Kentucky wouldn't go 40-0. The Wildcats didn't even come close to winning the SEC. Kentucky lost its third game of the season to a loaded, veteran Michigan State team and went on to drop six conference games. The team that was supposed to blitz college basketball needed a few late-season wins just to make the field of 68, and it was greeted with a No. 8 seed when it got there.

The fact is that for all of Kentucky's talent, a youthful roster still often found ways of showing its age. The Harrison twins in particular didn't live up to the hype. Kentucky had a propensity to turn the ball over and didn't shoot well from outside the entire season. The Wildcats made only 32.4 percent of their three-pointers, placing No. 266 in the country.

It's why Kentucky headed into Sunday's round of 32 matchup with undefeated Wichita State as a legitimate underdog. The Shockers had a great pair of sophomore guards in Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker. If the Harrisons didn't step up, Kentucky's season was going to end.

That's how it looked in the first half, when the Shockers took a six-point lead into the break. Whatever Calipari told his team in the locker room did wonders, because the team that showed up in the second half is the team Lexington has been waiting on all season. Kentucky looked dominant, and it was good enough to finally give Wichita State its first loss and make the Shockers the first No. 1 seed to get bounced from the tournament.

Kentucky's physical advantage was on display from the start. Wichita State simply had no one to match up with the 7-foot Cauley-Stein, who threw down a ferocious and-one slam late in the first half.


Minutes later, Poythress hunted down Baker in transition for a big block. For all of Wichita's basketball IQ and sizable talent, only one team was going to make plays like this:


In the second half, the Harrison twins woke up. Andrew and Aaron were up for the challenge and battled VanVleet and Baker blow-for-blow. The point guard Andrew, who shot only 37 percent from the field during the year, doubled his scoring average on the season to put up 20 points on 6-of-9 shooting. Aaron was every bit as good, hitting four huge three-pointers and finishing with 19 points.

Randle has been Kentucky's best and most consistent player throughout the season, and he showed up to play on Sunday, as well. Wichita State's Cleanthony Early torched Randle whenever they were matched up when the Shockers had the ball, but Randle's unrivaled power paid dividends when the Wildcats were in possession.

Randle finished with 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists on 4-of-9 shooting. This spinning and-one layup in the second half was the moment it started to seem like Kentucky really might pull the upset.


Make no mistake: this was an upset. Wichita State had a tremendous and versatile roster and earned its previously undefeated record even with a soft regular season schedule. Kentucky was simply better in the second half on Sunday. March Madness might be all about the underdog, but there's nothing that wins on a basketball court more consistently than superior talent.