INDIANAPOLIS — When his own epic showdown with Kentucky was over, even though it meant his perfect season was spoiled, former Wichita State star Cleanthony Early had nothing but respect for the Wildcats. That feeling was mutual.
“I think both of us saw that we had worked our tails off in that game, that we had put on an amazing show, and knew it was an experience we’d never forget,” said Early, who poured in 31 points against Kentucky on March 23, 2014, in a second-round NCAA Tournament game that was so much more than that. “One of the greatest games in college basketball history. I had so much fun in that game, and I still have people come up to me and say how much they enjoyed watching it.”
There is still some sting, though, in the final result: Kentucky 78, Wichita State 76. So Early will be watching his old team with great interest Sunday when the Shockers got another shot at the Wildcats in the second round of this year’s NCAA Tournament.
In a reversal of roles from three years ago, when Wichita State was the undefeated No. 1 seed and Kentucky an unusual No. 8 seed, these Shockers are clear underdogs in a matchup of 10 vs. 2 seeds. That feels to Early like the perfect set-up for revenge.
“We definitely owe them one,” he said. “That’s for sure.”
Kentucky shot 54 percent, Wichita State shot 55 percent and there were 14 lead changes in that breathless 2014 game, which wasn’t decided until Shockers star Fred VanVleet let fly what would’ve been a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“It looked good, and I was about to be crushed,” said former Wildcats 7-footer Dakari Johnson, who started at center for Kentucky that day but had a good view of the final shot from the bench. “It’s kind of surreal if you think about it: We were just one shot from going home, and then none of that other stuff happens for us.”
Oh, yeah, the other stuff. What followed that game for Kentucky was one of the most memorable NCAA Tournament runs ever: three consecutive clinching 3-pointers by Aaron Harrison in the final seconds of the Sweet 16, Elite Eight and Final Four. None of those iconic shots happen for the Cats if VanVleet’s own dagger had dropped.
“That was the game that everybody took off,” said Johnson, remembering Kentucky began that season ranked No. 1 and talking openly about its own pursuit of a 40-0 record. Instead, they’d limped into the tournament with 10 losses. “Once we got past Wichita State, we believed we could beat anybody in the tournament.”
The only shame of that game was that it happened so early. Had a classic like that gone down two or three rounds later, it would be universally considered one of the all-time greats.
“That was an Elite Eight game,” UK coach John Calipari said after upending the Shockers in the second round. “The winner of this should’ve gone to the Final Four.”
“They put on a wonderful show,” Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said that day. “I hope it goes down as a great one, and I am not ashamed to come out on the losing end.”
Kentucky point guard Andrew Harrison, who scored 20 points with a hyperextended shooting elbow, told Wichita State’s Ron Baker he was a “bad, bad boy” after Baker matched him point for point. “And I told him the same,” Baker said.
By the time it was over, Early knew his team had earned the Wildcats’ respect — “you could see it on their faces” — but that wasn’t the message Marshall was peddling before the game. Kentucky can expect the Shockers’ coach to sell something similar Sunday.
“He was telling us what they wanted to do to us, how they envisioned us, that they thought they were just going to walk all over us,” Early remembers. “Gregg’s a really intense coach, so he probably would’ve said some other things I can’t repeat, but he definitely got us motivated.”
Shaquille Morris already has all the fuel he needs for the rematch. A fourth-year junior center on this year’s team, he didn’t play in the last meeting, but he was there to feel both the electricity and the disappointment of that day.
“I remember how sick I felt when we lost,” Morris said. “It’ll be the thought (Sunday), just knowing that, ‘All right, we’re back on the court.’ You’ll just have a chip on your shoulder. Kentucky and Wichita State: It’s something the committee seemed to love, and now that it’s possible, it’s just so exciting.”