NCAA Tournament 2017: Wichita State embraces opportunity Kentucky presents

Outside the coaches, few people who were part of the classic Wichita State-Kentucky NCAA Tournament matchup of 2014 are still around. That doesn't make Sunday's game any less interesting.

INDIANAPOLIS —Wichita State freshman guard Landry Shamet wonders if he might get a message from abovein the next day or so. Now that the Shockers are playing Kentucky again, the men who built the culture he and his teammates shall attempt to avenge might have some encouragement to share about the task before them.

Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker are in the NBA now, but last year they mentored Shamet through the disappointment of a redshirt season brought on by a stress fracture in his foot. Three years ago, they were two of the stars of a Shockers team that won its first 35 games and saw a perfect season ruined in an all-time NCAA Tournament classic by a Kentucky team that went on to play in the national championship game.

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“That’d be cool. Ron hits me up every once in a while,” Shamet said. “Kentucky'sa good team. Obviously, it’s a little different now.”

Aside from head coaches John Calipari of UK and Gregg Marshall of Wichita, and many of their assistants, there are few contestants on either side who were part of that second-round tournament game back in 2014, which Kentucky won 78-76 when VanVleet’s 3-point trymissed at the buzzer. No one who played in the game is still around.

Wichita big man Shaquille Morris was redshirting that year. Senior walk-ons John Robert Simon and Zach Bush were on the bench. Kentucky seniors Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis were on Kentucky’s roster, but not on the floor.

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So it might seem a stretch to suggest Wichita can gain vengeance for that afternoon’s results, but this is the program whose excellence was built on the foundation that Baker, VanVleet and forward Cleanthony Early established. Since those two guards joined Early in 2012-13 and helped fuel an unexpected run to the Final Four, Wichita State is 152-27 and 10-4 in the NCAA Tournament. The Shockers have been to the Sweet 16 (or beyond) three times in the past five years.

But Kentucky got in the way of their finest moment.

“I don’t know if I’d call it revenge. It’s another exciting opportunity,” Simon said. “We don’t get to go out each week and play teams like Kentucky, those high-major, blueblood teams. To have that opportunity regardless of if we played them a few years ago, it’s exciting and another time to show what we can do.”

This particular opportunity, kind of like the last one, is not ideally timed. Once again, it is happening because one of the teams was drastically underseeded by the NCAA selection committee. In 2014, it was Kentucky, handed a No. 8 seed on the same day the Wildcats played No. 1 overall seed Florida to a two-point game in the SEC Tournament championship. This year, it was Wichita State, which was somewhat affronted by a No. 10 seed after compiling a 30-4 regular-season record that was backed by a No. 8 ranking in the respected KenPom ratings.

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The current victim of Wichita’s underseeding is Dayton, which fell 64-58 in a valiant performance that included 25 points in the final game of star guard Scoochie Smith’s career but just 31 percent shooting against the Shockers’ sturdy defense. They blocked four UD shots on a single second-half possession, and guard Kyle Davis made WSU shooting guard Conner Frankamp —the Missouri Valley Tournament MVP —all but disappear. Frankamp got off only five shots and made just one,but that one was a 3-pointer with 1:27 left that extended his team’s lead from four to seven points.

Dayton coach Archie Miller suggested Wichita could have been a No. 4 or 5 seed after seeing the Shockers too close up.

“Thirty-some wins and you look at the numbers across the board – I mean, every coach studies the analytics,” Miller said. “They’re a team that can beat anybody on a neutral court at any time, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they weren’t pushing toward another second weekend.”

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Getting there will require defeating a Kentucky team that has won 12 consecutive games and is 30-5. It is not a deep Kentucky team, but there likely will be three one-and-done lottery picks from the Wildcats in the 2017 NBA Draft. Marshall believes he has some potential pros — surely he is including Shamet, an electric talent who was first-team All-Missouri Valley Conference in his first season — but they might take more time to get there.

“Revenge? It’s been years since that happened. We’re just ready to play against them,” Morris told SN. “We have that in the back of our minds. It kind of gives you a little chip on your shoulder going into the game, with unreal energy.”

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