Possibly the most intriguing matchup of the tournament will be waged Sunday as preseason No. 1 Kentucky
attempts to work its way to the Sweet 16 against undefeated No. 1 seed Wichita State
Many had the Wildcats sitting in the Shockers' position when the season began, but the roles have been reversed for March Madness. Now it's Wichita State chasing the dream of a perfect season.
For Kentucky (25-10) it's been a season of ups and downs from what was heralded as the greatest recruiting class in history. UK coach John Calipari's recent "tweak" appeared to have sparked the young Cats to better play, but they'll be tested by one of the strongest teams in the country at 2:45 p.m. ET.
Wichita State (35-0) has been playing superb for the entire season. The Shockers fight and grind away games with heart. Fred VanVleet (11.8 ppg, 5.3 apg, 44% 3PFG) is their leader on the court. He's experienced and thinking ahead on every possession. He can shred the defense with both his eyes and his feet. VanVleet is probably second best point guard Kentucky has played this season behind only Florida's Scottie Wilbekin
. If the Wildcats are going to find a way to win, he'll be a big part of the defensive assignment.
Kentucky Keys to Win:
1. Attack down low. Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress will have to use their size and strength to own the interior. Kentucky cannot settle for perimeter shots, as it often did against Kansas State, if it wants to win this game. Wichita State's only weakness is interior depth. If Randle can be physical and attack the boards like he has done most of the season, UK has a chance to win the game.
2. Andrew Harrison making decisions with the ball. Wichita State plays the passing lane very well, so Harrison will need to make clean, crisp passes. If he becomes turnover-prone, the Cats could get run out of the building. Another big question mark here is how serious was the elbow injury he sustained at the end of the Kansas State game? Will he be available to play at all? And, if not, will twin Aaron Harrison have to step up and run the point? That would not bode well for the Cats' chances
3. Willie Cauley-Stein's defense. If the UK 7-footer can block three or four shots tomorrow and intimidate the smaller, quicker players that Wichita State features, UK will make the Shockers a one-dimensional team from the perimeter.
Key Player for Kentucky:
James Young's offense and defense on Ron Baker (12.9 ppg, 37% 3PFG, 84% FT) will determine if Kentucky has chance with Wichita State. In Friday's game, Young struggled for the entire game. He forced several shots offensively and was non-factor defensively. Wichita State's best pure 3-point shooter is Baker. His shot is nothing short of perfection. His release is cat-quick, and he can fill it up. If Young can rattle him with his length and athleticism, Wichita State has fewer consistent offensive options. VanVleet might have to become more of a shooter than a facilitator, which is not his best role.
Wichita State Keys to Win:
1. Force turnovers by the young Kentucky team. If Wichita State can get into Andrew Harrison's head, it could get ugly for UK. The Shockers bring high intensity for 40 minutes, something the Cats don't always do. Focus and concentration will be essential to their chances of pulling the upset.
2. Controlling the boards. Wichita State has to keep the outstanding UK rebounders off the glass, especially on the offensive boards where the Cats have thrived. Can the Shockers match the physical play that guys like Randle and Johnson and potentially Poythress bring to the table?
3. Perimeter shooting will determine if Wichita State will stay in the game or get bounced by the Cats. Baker can shoot the ball from anywhere on the court with very little opening. If Vanvleet can penetrate the man-to-man defense and kick the ball out for open looks, it could be a long day for the Cats.
Key Player for Wichita State:
Ron Baker is the No. 1 option on offense, even though he's technically the Shockers' second-leading scorer. If he can hit a few 3's, the confidence in him will spread to his teammates and Kentucky will have to handle the proverbial punch in the mouth. Baker is used in their offense as pure 3-point shooter that gets off several curls and picks from the big guys. He has the green light from anywhere on the court. He cannot be left unattended, and if the Cats over-do it on him, Tekele Cotton (10.5 ppg) and Cleanthony Early (16 ppg) are also dangerous.
Possibly the most intriguing matchup of the tournament will be waged Sunday as preseason No. 1 Kentucky attempts to work its way to the Sweet 16 against undefeated No. 1 seed Wichita State.
Breaking down the key matchups in Sunday's NCAA showdown between UK and Wichita State.