ST. LOUIS — In that other tournament, there can be no better matchup Sunday than Wichita State vs. Kentucky.
While Illinois is cast into a morning NIT slot at Clemson, the NCAA offers the classic midmajor challenging basketball’s greatest tradition (53 NCAA appearances, eight titles), a veteran two-year team vs. the NBA-bound freshmen, and the first 35-0 team vs. prized youths who lost five of the last 11 but are seemingly peaking.
Just because the Shockers haven’t faced a Top 50 team since Christmas doesn’t mean they’re less than a quality product. They play sound defense. Cleanthony Early is a superstar, hitting 45 percent of his treys over 16 games.
But who knows how they’ll react in a last-second showdown. In 35 wins, 29 have come by double figures.
I have it on good authority, though I have doubts, that coach Gregg Marshall has called only two timeouts all season for instructional purposes.
“He does his teaching in practice, and he believes in letting them play it out,” said Bob Hull, the Shockers’ broadcaster. “Besides, Marshall has his own coach on the floor in Fred VanVleet. Talking basketball with Fred is like talking to a coach. He is the leader.”
VanVleet is a 5-foot-11 dynamo who emerged with little notice from one of this state’s broken cities, Rockford, which once churned out quality athletes before the school system and the working community deteriorated.
But my take, after watching Kentucky’s elongated stars dominate a sinking Kansas State club — the 56-49 loss was the 10th in 18 games for Bruce Weber’s team — is that the Wildcats’ up-front size and athleticism is such that they’ll beat anybody if freshmen James Young and the Harrison twins hit jumpers (they were a so-so 9 of 29 vs. K-State).
It’s hard to score inside on Kentucky because Julius Randle and the 7-footers are so physical and athletic. With bodies flying in the paint, officials can’t call all the contact. And they let a lot of it go Friday.
Taking it to another level
If you wonder about the expectations attached to Bill Self’s Kansas program, consider:
— Having won a national title and every Big 12 Conference crown since he left Illinois in 2003, Self now is making over $5 million per year.
— Two Kansas fans bought James Naismith’s 13 original typewritten rules of basketball for more than $4.3 million a few years ago, and this is projected as a centerpiece for a Naismith Museum that’s in the works.
— They expect to break ground next year for a $17.5 million apartment complex for the men’s and women’s basketball teams on Naismith Drive, rules requiring that 34 regular students join 32 athletes there so the latter won’t be a majority. The extravagant cost of $265,000 per person will be handled by private donations and apartment income. These ultra-modern living quarters will have tutoring, dining and lounge areas, the administration noting that “this is the cost of running a big-time basketball program and attracting the best basketball recruits.”
Can the current Self team meet such standards? Hard to say. Would an NCAA championship be enough?
Jayhawk guard play leaves something to be desired, and the Big Dance is a guard-oriented tournament. They went 0 for 7 on treys Friday, charging back from a 23-14 deficit to hammer Eastern Kentucky 80-69. Even as they awaited the return of 7-foot Joel Embiid (back troubles), their best offense was a missed shot. They savaged EKU inside with 14 offensive rebounds, dunking most of them and finishing 32 of 46 on two-point attempts.
Brunson remains priority
This is not to say John Groce lacks a backup plan.
But the presence of athletic director Mike Thomas and Groce at Friday’s state high school tournament in Peoria is a revelation:
(1) ADs don’t attend high school games unless it’s extremely important, (2) Groce wouldn’t waste their time if he didn’t have feedback that Illinois is in the game for 6-3 Stevenson junior Jalen Brunson, (3) Illinois has shoved all its chips into the center of the table and (4) it could be a home run or a strikeout in the critical quest for a point guard.
According to Joe Henricksen of City/Suburban Hoops Report, the premier voice on Chicago-area basketball, Brunson’s 56-point spree in a 75-68 loss to Whitney Young was the greatest performance in state tournament history.
“Considering the stage (4A semifinal) and the quality of the opponent, this was the best ever,” Henricksen said.
Still, Henricksen casts his Player of the Year vote for Jahlil Okafor, the Whitney Young senior who scored 33 and dominated the game inside. Henricksen was outvoted on The Sun-Times board, that award going to Curie’s Kansas-bound Cliff Alexander.
Editor’s Note: Henricksen says the state tournament “is dying every year in every way from an atmosphere that was (in a bygone day) a 10 at Huff, dropping to a 9-8-7 at the Assembly Hall and is now a 4 in Peoria.” Does the UI really want it back in four divisions?
— Chasson Randle, junior guard from Rock Island, almost single-handedly turned back New Mexico on Friday with 23 points in a 58-53 victory. Once seriously sought by Illinois, he appears more scorer than playmaker, peaking this season with 33 twice and averaging 18.9 points and 2.1 assists.
— Centennial’s Jeff Johnson drained his second trey to give Eastern Kentucky its last lead against Kansas, 56-53, before the Jayhawk huskies swarmed the glass down the stretch.
— In the worst planning imaginable, the Scottrade Center had to empty out 19,000 fans and get 19,000 back in their seats in less than a half hour between sessions. It can’t be done, so the Wichita State-Cal Poly game began with many yellow-shirted Shocker fans waiting to get in. There might have been a couple thousand people seated at tipoff. Who still believes college basketball games last just two hours?
— In the NCAA’s second round, 15 of 32 games were decided by single digits, and eight teams eliminated higher seeds Duke, Colorado, VCU, Ohio State, New Mexico, UMass, Cincinnati and Oklahoma.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.