ST. LOUIS — They have us right where they want us, again. As Tekele Cotton slumped in his corner locker stall Friday night, Kentucky-related scribes peppered the Wichita State off-guard with Kentucky-related questions from a Kentucky-related slant.
Reporter: Will you watch the game in the hotel, or here?
Cotton: “We’re going to watch it out there.”
Reporter: Will you watch the whole game?
Cotton: “We might watch the half. We might watch the whole game. It doesn’t really matter. We’re just waiting on the outcome of this game.”
Reporter: If it is Kentucky, do you think you’ll be underdogs?
Cotton: “Yeah, we’ll be the underdogs, because people say we haven’t played an ‘elite team’ yet. But at the same time, it’s the game of basketball. We both got to go out there, we both got to tie our shorts and put our jerseys on and go out there and play basketball.”
Reporter: Have you watched them before?
“Yeah, I watched them,” Cotton said. “I mean, as a basketball player, I watch a lot of teams. … They’re a good team. They’re well coached and they’re a good team. And everybody knows that they’re a great team. But whoever we’ve got to play, we’ve just got to be prepared for them.”
Wichita State 64, Cal Poly 37.
Kentucky 56, Kansas State 49.
And here we are. Finally.
In one corner of Scottrade Center on Sunday, the bunch that, at the start of the season, was the subject of a T-shirt — “40-0” — anticipating a perfect season.
In the other corner, the team that, um, actually did it.
“Kentucky’s always got a good program, it seems like,” guard Ron Baker said after his Shockers became the first Division I men’s basketball team ever to start a season with 35 straight victories. “Very respected team. Very respected coach.
“They’ve got a lot of very talented players, and everybody knows that. And that’s why they’re so dangerous, (even) as an 8 seed.”
The Shockers are dangerous, too, something Big Blue Nation got to witness firsthand for the first time Friday. By the time most Kentucky fans were in their seats for the night session at Scottrade Center, Wichita was up 21-5 and looked the part of a No. 1 seed.
“Every bit of it,” Cal Poly coach Joe Callero said. “Every bit of it.”
“We played Arizona very early in the year and I think they really match up with them,” Mustangs guard Kyle Odister added. “Arizona has (Brandon) Ashley out and Wichita State just playing with us, I can see why they are 34-0. They are very physical, hit the outside shots.”
Also, they can defend a little. The Mustangs’ shooting percentage — 12 for 58, a 20.7 clip — was the third-lowest mark ever recorded by an NCAA tourney team in the first, second or third rounds.
At least it wasn’t all bad: Cal Poly alum and St. Louis legend Ozzie Smith, the Hall of Fame shortstop, visited the team in the locker room before the game.
“He said we’d already won before the game even started,” Odister said.
“So he signed things and hung out and talked and visited,” Callero said. “One of our goals next is to get John Madden to come in the locker room. And … get Weird Al Yankovic to come back here as well.”
A polka for the Shockers, it was. A work of art, it wasn’t. Wichita shot 57.1 percent from the charity stripe (12 for 21) and turned it over 12 times while forcing the Mustangs into only six.
Eastern Kentucky had pushed Kansas like crazy at Scottrade before the strength of the Jayhawks’ NBA front line pushed back late. The first game of the night session was a different deal. The Mustangs (14-20) drained the first make of the game, a 3-pointer by Chris Eversley about 71 seconds into the contest.
Wichita went on a 6-2 run after that … then 8-0 … then 10-0 … then 13-0 … then 15-0 …
“So, you know, they play well together,” Eversley said after the tilt. “They play well with each other’s defensive strengths and they were able to force us into bad shots. And we had a couple of other shots that we also missed.”
More than a couple. Cal Poly made only two of its first 21 field-goal attempts, and four of its first 28.
At 47-19, Shockers coach Gregg Marshall started calling off the dogs. The point was made.
Or not, in this case.
“They have an interesting defense,” Eversley said. “We knew coming into the game (that) they are an interesting team in the fact (that) as the shot clock goes down, they get stronger.”
Sunday, they’ll have to be stronger still. Julius Randle. The Harrisons. Coach Cal. A fan base and media throng with one eye on the Shockers and another on a possible rematch with Louisville in the regional semifinal.
“We like to play (the) ‘us-against-the-world’ mentality,” Baker said. “But most of all, we just try to have fun.”
The bunch with the perfect T-shirt meets the bunch with the perfect record. Sound like fun to anybody else?
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org