By LARRY VAUGHT
ST. LOUIS — Perhaps nothing says more about the Kentucky-Wichita State matchup than UK freshman James Young admitting he could not name one player on Wichita State.
Not one player off a team that went to the Final Four last year. Not one player off the nation’s only unbeaten team. Not one player on the Midwest Region’s No. 1 team. He didn’t even know that Andrew Wiggins’ brother, Nick, played there after playing with and against Andrew Wiggins in all-star games last year when Wiggins was also being recruited at UK.
“I’ve seen clips of them every now and then on ESPN, but it feels like just another game that we just have to keep playing,” said Young.
But he doesn’t know even one Wichita State player?
“I have not really heard of anybody,” Young said.
Obviously, CBS-TV has a different approach to Sunday’s Kentucky-Wichita State game here. That’s why it is the marquee game in CBS’ Sunday schedule and will tip off about 2:45 p.m. EST. The network understands the drama of having the nation’s only unbeaten team going against a historic program like Kentucky that came into the season No. 1 and was projected by some as possibly going unbeaten. And a program where UK fans know players long before they arrive on campus — and opponents know the names as well.
Now UK goes into the game as an underdog because it has already lost 10 games this season.
“We have a chip on our shoulder. We are the underdogs right now. We use that as motivation and know we have to come in the game and fight,” Kentucky freshman guard Andrew Harrison said.
Harrison is no more used to being an underdog than Kentucky fans are.
“No, not really. That’s not how it has been for me. But it is making me become a better man to be honest. Just have to come every game to fight no matter what the outcome is. You just have to fight out there on the court and show that even though you are the underdog, you can still win,” Harrison said. “We want to show we are a great team, play together and love each other. This is a chance to do that.”
Maybe. But it’s also a chance for a veteran, relatively unknown Wichita State team to make a case for experience over highly-publicized talent as it did on its Final Four march last year or as Mercer did when it stunned Duke in this year’s NCAA.
Calipari can related to Wichita State. Remember he took UMass and Memphis both to the Final Four when his teams were not household names and had to beat bigger, more established name teams. He knows how dangerous Wichita State’s lack of notoriety can be and how that can motivate a team.
“I have been in a few of those. I only got a BCS job five years ago. I was at UMass and Memphis trying to take on the big dogs. So you have a chip on your shoulder,” Calipari said. “It’s us against the world and no one thinks we’re going to do this, and now you’re going against Kentucky who had a good season, but not a great season. And, you know, I’ve been there. I’ve been on the other side. I haven’t been on this side going against it.
“Believe me when I tell you folks, I had three or four teams start the season with 20 wins or more to start a season and I can’t begin to tell you how much you try to push it off as nothing, and you say it’s nothing. Oh, it’s something.”
He marvels at the way Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall has made it a “blessing, not a burden” for the unbeaten Shockers.
“We had some teams who had a chance, 38‑2 a couple of teams and 35‑2. I mean we had a chance on a couple of different teams, but I’ll tell you, I felt it as the head coach, which I knew my team had felt it,” Calipari said about the pressure of being unbeaten.
Marshall gets almost giddy talking about his unbeaten team.
“I think it is really fun. It has been a great season,” he said.
But he said his team’s only goal is to “get out of the weekend” and keep advancing by beating Kentucky.
Sophomore Alex Poythress thinks the Shockers, who will have a huge edge in fan support based on attendance Friday when they routed Cal Poly 64-37, will feel the pressure just as the Cats have many times during his two seasons.
“They have veteran players and a lot of talent,” Poythress, who had watched Wichita State play, said. “But the record doesn’t mean anything to us at this point. It’s going to be a big test for us and we’ll be pumped up to play. I feel like the target is on their back, not ours. They have all the pressure on them to keep winning every game. The pressure is off us.
“We just have to go play. We can show all those doubting us what we can do. I am sure there are plenty of doubters, but people doubt everybody. But we don’t doubt ourselves and we know we can do this.”