Not that this was any ol’ ballgame. The preliminary to Kentucky-West Virginia had a weird feel to it, as if this NCAA tournament semi were actually a JV game. Even weirder: Notre Dame, the Midwest’s No. 3 seed and the ACC tournament champion, was a two-point underdog to Wichita State of the Missouri Valley Conference, a No. 7 seed.
Granted, the Shockers have spent the past few seasons making a major-league name for themselves. They crashed the Final Four in 2013 and led eventual champ Louisville by double figures in the second half, and last year they entered the Big Dance undefeated. They lost in the round of 32 to Kentucky, which was maybe the strangest game in the history of basketball: The Wildcats, who had been ranked No. 1 in preseason and who would reach the NCAA title game, were the eighth seed.
“That was one of the best college basketball games I’ve been involved in,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said Wednesday. “Shouldn’t have happened that round. I mean, that game should have been a Final Four game or at least a regional final game, but it did. We were very fortunate to get out. They missed a shot at the buzzer to win the game.”
As you may have read, Calipari’s team entered Thursday’s nightcap undefeated. In the run-up to this regional, much of the chatter concerned the Shockers’ desire to do to Kentucky as the Wildcats had done to them last March – beat the unbeaten. Along the line, a 31-win ACC champion was left to feel a bit like chopped liver.
“There’s so much out there about the Kentucky-Wichita State rematch,” Brey said Wednesday. “Certainly (the Shockers’) NCAA tournament success with this nucleus, we’ve not had that. But we did win an ACC tournament going through North Carolina and Duke on Tobacco Road, so that gives us confidence to play against them.”
Then: “We do feel a little bit like the odd man out. I keep saying, ‘Well, they’ll get a shot at Kentucky and maybe they can end their undefeated season.’ ”
Well, no. Notre Dame left the Shockers in its dust, winning 81-70 after leading by 19 points inside the final five minutes. Four Irish starters scored 15 or more points, and the one who didn’t – guard Jerian Grant, the son of Harvey Grant, the former NBA player who grew up in Sparta, Ga. alongside twin Horace — had nine points and 11 assists. Notre Dame made 18 of 24 second-half shots, and shooting 75 percent will win you most games.
In the end, Notre Dame wasn’t the odd man out at all. The only thing odd was that offense held sway. That doesn’t happen much these days, and more’s the pity.