INDIANAPOLIS — Here are three observations from No. 2 seed Kentucky’s 65–62 victory over No. 10 seed Wichita State on Sunday. The Wildcats’ win propels them to the South regional semifinals in Memphis, where they’ll face the winner of No. 6 seed Cincinnati and No. 3 seed UCLA.
1) The big question facing this Kentucky team was whether it had the requisite veterans and experience to handle the intensity and pressure of the NCAA tournament. After sleepwalking through its first-round game against No. 15 seed Northern Kentucky on Friday, the Wildcats answered the bell resplendently against the feisty Shockers. In the final 15 seconds, Kentucky’s Malik Monk blocked a potential go-ahead three-pointer by Wichita State’s Markis McDuffie. And the Wildcats’ Bam Adebayo followed up by blocking a potential game-tying trey by the Shockers’ Landry Shamet at the buzzer. Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox shined down the stretch with two hammer dunks that are headed straight for the One Shining Moment video. But the defensive stands by a pair of freshmen showed the resiliency many wondered if Kentucky had as it coasted through the SEC and often seemed vulnerable to lapses of defensive intensity. Coach John Calipari’s Wildcats earned this victory, down to the last second.
2) After Wichita State outlasted No. 7 seed Dayton in the first round here, Shockers coach Gregg Marshall departed the podium with some words of sympathy for Flyers coach Archie Miller: “I think Dayton deserved a better draw in this tournament,” he said. With Wichita State’s No. 10 seed universally considered an abomination by the selection committee, that set up a thorny second-round matchup for Kentucky. The game ended up as physical and competitive as advertised, as the Wildcats outlasted their bad draw. Kentucky’s freshmen led the way, with Fox scoring 14 points, including the dunks that sapped the Shockers' momentum. Monk added 14 points and Adebayo had 13 points and 10 rebounds. This game left little doubt of what was already plenty clear: Kentucky’s influx of freshmen will lead the way if it makes a deep run.
3) The game grinded early on to favor the Shockers. Kentucky led 26–24 at halftime, but few could argue the Wildcats wanted to play a low-scoring game. The Wildcats averaged more than 77 points per game in coasting to the SEC tournament title, and as they demonstrated all season with Fox’s speed and Monk’s shooting, they’re more comfortable outscoring teams than out-grinding them. Wichita State’s grit and patience in the first half assured a halfcourt slog would ensue. And Kentucky showed early signs of vulnerability, as Calipari surely didn’t want reserve big man Wenyen Gabriel shooting as much as he did. He went 0-for-5, including some long-range jumpers that were well outside of his repertoire and finished scoreless in seven minutes. From the earliest stages of this matchup, it was clear we were headed for a tight finish. And the Shockers’ Shamet made sure of that. He finished with 20 points and had a chance to tie the game at the buzzer before Adebayo sealed a Wildcats win by swatting Shamet’s jumper.