ST. LOUIS -- In every NCAA tournament bracket, there are early intersections that seem part of a deliberate plot. In 2014, the selection committee sadistically paired Rick Pitino with former assistant Steve Masiello in the Louisville-Manhattan 4-13 game in the Midwest. In the same region, the committee set up a potential third-round game for the ages, pitting No. 1 Wichita State, the nation's lone undefeated, against No. 8 Kentucky, the lone team with a coach inviting can-we-go-undefeated talk in October. Now that the matchup has come true, these four things matter most:
1. This will be the greatest rebounding battle of the NCAA tournament, if not the entire 2013-14 season. Kentucky is the No. 1 offensive-rebounding team in the bracket and will have at least two elite glass-cleaners in the game at all times, using a rotation of freshmen Julius Randle (6-foot-9) and Dakari Johnson (7-0) and sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein (7-0) and Alex Poythress (6-8). "Coach [Calipari] tells us we have to gang rebound once a shot goes up," Johnson says, and in that gang's past two games, they've grabbed 13 offensive boards against Kansas State and 12 against Florida. The Wildcats are a poor-shooting team that survives on its second- and third-chance opportunities.
Wichita State has studied the way Kentucky has dominated the offensive glass, and Shockers center Chadrack Lufile is impressed but not exactly daunted. "When I saw them, I was like, 'Man, they're beasts,'" he said, "but at the same time, if you don't tame a beast, he's going to be a beast. If you don't box out somebody, they're going to get those rebounds." Wichita has reason to believe it can counter the 'Cats ... because the Shockers happen to be the the No. 1 defensive-rebounding team in the bracket. Here's how the elite rebounding teams in the tourney stack up side-by-side:
On the season, Kentucky grabs 42.1 percent of its misses. Wichita State grabs 74.0 percent of opponents' misses. Something has to give -- and it very well could decide the game.
2. Read into this as much (or as little) as you want, but Wichita was the most dominant No. 1 seed in the second round. And it wasn't even close. While Florida, Arizona and Virginia all played tighter-than-they-should-have-been games against their No. 16-seeded opponents, the Shockers held Cal Poly to 23.3 percent shooting on the interior and 17.9 percent from long range.
This chart shows each No. 1 seed's performance relative to their No. 16's season averages in offensive and defensive efficiency:
Wichita is the lone powerhouse that opened its NCAA tournament actually looking like a powerhouse.
3. With both halfcourt defenses playing at the top of their games, expect a grinder. Wichita's help-oriented D is well-suited to cut off Kentucky's driving lanes, especially if point guard Andrew Harrison is limited due to hyperextending his right elbow in Friday's win over Kansas State. The Shockers' off-ball defenders are well-drilled at sitting in gaps; this screengrab from their Arch Madness final against Indiana State is a good example of them clogging up the lane on a ballscreen for Manny Arop:
As for Kentucky's defense, it held Florida to its third-least-efficient offensive outing of the season (0.980 PPP) in the SEC tournament championship game, and Kansas State to its lowest output of the season (0.805 PPP) in the second round of the NCAAs. The Wildcats have figured out how to guard the interior without fouling and could make things difficult for Wichita on the blocks.
4. Kentucky's defense still has one big area of vulnerability: transition. The Wildcats have the biggest dropoff in Division I between the efficiency of their halfcourt defense and their transition defense, according to Synergy Sports Technology. The gap is a hard-to-believe 0.364 PPP:
The Shockers had just four fastbreak points against Cal Poly and aren't a particularly high-paced offensive team, but if they want to attack Kentucky at its weakest point, they'll get out and run on Sunday.
SI Now: Nothing shocking about Wichita State's success
On Friday's SI Now, Sports Illustrated senior writer Luke Winn discusses being embedded with the Wichita State
men's basketball team as they won the MVC tournament and how the team is attempting to make history this March Madness.