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Wichita State-UK sets up as biggest Round of 32 game -- maybe ever

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ST. LOUIS -- Because of the way the schedule fell, with Kentucky and Kansas State playing the late game Friday here at the Scottrade Center, the Wichita State players celebrated their Round of 64 destruction of Cal Poly while still unsure of their next opponent.

They ate pizza and speculated.

If they had a preference, they didn't let on.

"It doesn't matter to us," Tekele Cotton told me. "We're going to be hyped either way."

That's fair, I suppose.

But I know what I wanted, and I bet I know what you wanted, and I can say with a degree of certainty what television executives wanted because television executives love storylines, and you simply cannot do better in the Round of 32 than Wichita State vs. Kentucky. So with all due respect to Bruce Weber and Kansas State, one of the best moments of this NCAA Tournament to date came late Friday, at 11:19 local time, when UK finalized a 56-49 victory over KSU, and the public address announcer spoke into his microphone one last time.

"Sunday's matchups are now set," he said loud and clear. "No. 2 seed Kansas will take on No. 10 seed Stanford at 11:15 (CT), and then No. 1 seed Wichita State will take on No. 8 seed Kentucky. ... We look forward to seeing you all Sunday."

And we look forward to seeing you, sir.

And if I sound giddy that's because I am, and anybody who knows me knows I'm not the type to get giddy about sporting events (outside of the occasional Floyd Mayweather fight). I love my job, and I realize I'm lucky to have it. But, to me, games are just games. So I go to them, write about them, and then I move on to the next city and arena. Whatever. Most of the big events I've attended blend together after all these years, long as I'm telling the truth.

But this?

Man, this is terrific.

I'm a big fan of storylines, and the storylines attached to this Wichita State-Kentucky Round of 32 game make this Wichita State-Kentucky Round of 32 game the most compelling Round of 32 matchup in NCAA Tournament history. Some folks might suggest that's hyperbole, I know. If you're among those folks, let me ask this: Can you name one more compelling?

I'm not talking about better matchups.

Or more competitive matchups.

Obviously, this Wichita State-Kentucky game still hasn't been played. So I can't promise it'll go down as one of the top opening-weekend tilts of all-time; it might be a blowout, after all. But has there ever been anything more compelling, in advance, in the Round of 32 than Wichita State-Kentucky? I honestly don't think there has been because what we have here is the nation's preseason No. 1 team that once had aspirations of 40-0 against the nation's most-divisive team that's still very much chasing 40-0. What we have here is the biggest and baddest program in the sport against a member of the Missouri Valley Conference. What we have here is a roster filled with McDonald's All-Americans and future NBA Draft picks against a roster featuring just one top-100 national recruit.

Wichita State is the consummate underdog.

And yet Gregg Marshall's Shockers are a 3.5-point favorite.

"Gregg has done a great job with these guys," said Kentucky coach John Calipari. "He and I spoke, [and I told him that] I have had a couple of teams that have gone through what he went through [and took a perfect record deep into the regular season], I said 'I didn't do as good of a job as you have, which is take it off the kids and just let them keep playing basketball.' I said, 'I'm telling you, I felt it with the teams that I had that were 26-0, and I was almost happy we lost, like just get this off.' But he's handled it superbly."

Still, skeptics remain.

Never mind that Wichita State is ranked second in the AP poll and, according to KenPom, better than anybody from the Big 12, Big Ten, ACC or Big East. Never mind that the Shockers are the first team to enter the NCAA Tournament with a perfect record since UNLV did it more than two decades ago. Never mind that they overwhelmed their opening opponent in this event in a way that no other No. 1 seed did, and never mind that when I asked Cal Poly's Joe Callero if Wichita State looked the part of an elite team, he responded this way: "Every bit of it. The thing about Wichita State is ... they very, very, very rarely take any plays off. Their defensive attention and focus and offensive attention and focus is excellent -- as good as there is in college basketball. ... They are dialed in. I think that's what separates them."

Now I know what you're thinking: What does the Cal Poly coach know about elite?

That's a reasonable question, I guess.

But before you dismiss Callero, understand that Cal Poly played Arizona, Oregon, Pittsburgh and Stanford this season, and realize that this team Wichita State beat by 27 points only lost to Arizona by 11, to Oregon by 21, to Pitt by 17, and to Stanford by 17. In other words, none of those high-major opponents flustered Cal Poly like the Shockers flustered Cal Poly, which only shot 20.7 percent from the field in the 64-37 loss. That said, I still doubt that Wichita State won a single skeptic over on Friday because, you know, this was still just a win against an average opponent, and if the Shockers were capable of winning people over via wins against average opponents they would've probably done that months ago.

And that's why Sunday is massive.

For the first time in a long time, Wichita State can record a victory that cannot be dismissed. If the Shockers do it, they'll end the season of the preseason No. 1 and advance to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year. If they don't, their 35-0 record will be dismissed by some as little more than what happens when a pretty good team plays in a pretty bad league, and it won't matter that such would be a ridiculous conclusion to draw from the outcome of a single 40-minute game. People draw ridiculous conclusions from single 40-minute games all the time, and, because of that, Marshall knows the stakes are crazy high.

"If we lose, the detractors will win," Marshall said. "So we have to win."

So who you got?

Wichita State or Kentucky?

Gregg Marshall or John Calipari?

The scrappy team from the MVC or the heralded roster from the SEC?

Reasonable minds can disagree on the potential outcome, but it would be unreasonable for any fan to pass on this moment. The most-compelling Round of 32 game in NCAA Tournament history is on tap. The Scottrade Center is soldout. I'll be courtside. I can't wait.

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