Sports are cruel.
You know this, but head knowledge rarely enables the human person to fully stave off the waves of pain and heartbreak that come crashing down when the freshness of the moment hits.
This is the world faced by the Wichita State Shockers and their fans after one of the greatest games in college basketball history… a game the Shockers somehow lost in St. Louis on an unforgettable Sunday afternoon.
The story authored by the victorious Kentucky Wildcats is a simple one. The difficulty lies in being willing to acknowledge its simplicity and transfer the meaning of the moment to the unlucky souls from the wheat fields of Kansas.
Kentucky — much like the Stanford Cardinal earlier in the day against the Kansas Jayhawks, only on a much bigger scale — has taken four months of so-so basketball and wiped it away with a perfect weekend in St. Louis.
Kentucky is that very recognizable creature in college basketball: the high major that underachieves during the season; feels really angry about its inability to flourish; confronts the reality of its season ending with one more loss; and, in response to those previous three parts of its situation, elevates its game, doing what its fans and chroniclers were expecting all season long.
If you claim that you haven’t seen examples of this in college hoops, you’re just not paying attention or are willfully casting aside the truth. Syracuse and Michigan might not have fit this profile to a tee, but they left something(s) on the table in 2013 and then played in a Final Four semifinal. Louisville rescued its 2012 season by finding itself in March. Lo and behold, Kentucky and John Calipari authored this sort of narrative in 2011 with a run to the Final Four as a 4 seed. This happens on an annual basis — it’s not even a fringe event; it’s part of the fabric of the sport as it exists.
Having established that point, let’s realize just how well Kentucky played on Sunday, relative to the not-very-impressive standard it set during the regular season in a woefully below-average SEC.
Kentucky came into this game hitting 32.3 percent of its threes. On Sunday, the Wildcats drained 44.4 percent of their triples (8-of-18). This is the heart of the day’s crueler-than-cruel reality for Wichita State — why? Because the Shockers received a nasty dose of role reversal in the round of 32 relative to last year.
In 2013, Wichita State was the team that shot well beyond its pay grade in a round-of-32 upset of a 1 seed from a mid-major conference. The Shockers hit an average of 33.9 percent of their threes last season. Yet, they made 14-of-28 long balls to oust Gonzaga from the Big Dance and move to the Sweet 16, paving the path to the Final Four. To see Kentucky — not a good perimeter shooting team by any stretch over the course of the long season — toss in treys from all spots has to make Gregg Marshall curse the same fates that carried him to the promised land 12 months ago.
That’s sports, folks. That’s how fickle March has been. That’s how fickle March is. That’s how fickle March can be.
Wichita State, it should be said, averaged 34.7 percent on threes heading into today. The Shockers nailed 10-of-21 threes, with Cleanthony Early hitting 4-of-6 long ones. In a game that was comprised of little other than two teams throwing haymakers at each other for all 40 minutes in a near-flawless display of hunger, athleticism, skill, power, and poise put together, Kentucky was simply a little better.
Wichita State played an A-level game. Playing at the height of one’s capabilities when it counts — showcasing a vast array of talents — is the best way to validate a No. 1 seed.
The Shockers did that. They still lost.
That’s because the other team has a say in the conversation, a place in the competitive dialogue sports always are.
If you think Kentucky’s “not a very good team,” well, you would have been absolutely right two weeks ago. If you think Wichita State “really blew it” by losing to this “not very good Kentucky team,” well… that’s just not a fair standard or claim to cling to.
This Kentucky team on March 23 was not that Kentucky team on March 8, when it got pasted by Florida a week after losing to South Carolina (!).
We are reminded that mere “winning or losing” can’t be the end of the standards we apply as we measure the merits of those who rise or fall in March. If you lose when playing poorly, you deserve comparatively more criticism. If you lose when playing fairly well but not quite your best, you deserve a modest share of criticism.
If you lose by a whisker when engaging in one of the classic games in a sport’s entire history — this contest will indeed stand the test of time; it will hold up well under further scrutiny — you did not invalidate your season or your NCAA seeding. You did not get “exposed.” You did not prove you were “unfit for prime time.”
You lost because your great game was improbably but genuinely topped by your no-longer-underachieving, no-longer-a-bad-perimeter-shooting-team foe from Lexington, Ky.
It’s far more cruel than you can imagine.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs know what Wichita State is feeling today.