Cleveland — Wichita State entered the 2014 NCAA tournament undefeated and lost to a No. 8 seed in the round of 32. That game, however, bears an asterisk: The No. 8 seed was Kentucky, which was No. 1 in preseason and would, after an indifferent regular season, reach the Final Four.
A year later, Kentucky entered the NCAA tournament undefeated and remains that way. Thirty-six games down, four to go to become the first unbeaten national champion since Indiana in 1976. If Wichita State beats Notre Dame on Thursday and Kentucky ousts West Virginia later that night, the Shockers will have a chance to do as the Wildcats did a year ago — beat the unbeaten.
“There’s so much out there about the Kentucky-Wichita State rematch,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said Wednesday. “Certainly their NCAA tournament success with this nucleus (the Shockers crashed the 2013 Final Four), we’ve not had that. But we did win an ACC tournament going through North Carolina and Duke on Tobacco Road, so that gives us confidence to play against them.”
Then: “We do feel a little bit like the odd man out. I keep saying, ‘Well, they’ll get a shot at Kentucky and maybe they can end their undefeated season.’ ”
It isn’t often that the coach of a just-crowned ACC champion has to lobby for his team, but Brey’s point was apt. For all the talk of Wichita State getting another crack at Kentucky — and the Shockers, who took down No. 2 seed Kansas on Sunday, are favored in Thursday’s game — Notre Dame just won the league that plays the nation’s best basketball. (Think not? Five of the six ACC teams in this Big Dance are still going, and the exception is Virginia, the league’s regular-season winner.)
A reminder: Notre Dame is a No. 3 seed to Wichita State’s No. 7. Another: The Irish are 7-1 against the rest of the Sweet 16; Wichita State is 0-1. Even as we credit the Shockers for being the best mid-major east of Gonzaga, we also note: They play in the Missouri Valley Conference, which isn’t the same as the ACC.
Still, that didn’t preclude questions about a Kentucky-Wichita State regional final. Someone asked Kentucky’s John Calipari about the game of last March. “That was one of the best college basketball games I’ve been involved in,” he said. “Shouldn’t have happened that round. I mean, that game should have been a Final Four game or at least a regional final game, but it did. We were very fortunate to get out. They missed a shot at the buzzer to win the game.”
Someone else asked the Shockers’ Gregg Marshall about the similarities between his program and Kentucky. To his credit, Marshall seemed amused. “The similarities? They wear shorts and tank tops and sneakers, and we do the same. I don’t know what type of hair gel Cal uses, but he uses something — a little bit of product. I use a little product. His suits are probably a little more expensive. I don’t know if there’s many similarities other than that. We have our own niche in college basketball, and they have their own niche.”
True enough. Wichita State is a brand-name mid-major. Kentucky is a brand-name major. Kentucky has nine McDonald’s All-Americans on its roster. Wichita State has landed two in its history, the most recent in 1981.
Further reading: An old nemesis menaces Calipari and Kentucky.