MANHATTAN — Some college basketball programs view reaching the NCAA Tournament as ordinary. Not Kansas State.
The Wildcats gathered for the selection show Sunday full of nerves, they said, even with three trips in the past four years and an at-large berth seemingly assured.
Revealed as a No. 8 seed for a Thursday East Regional game against No. 9 seed Southern Mississippi in Pittsburgh made them as happy as in past years.
“I hope our fans don’t take for granted how hard it is to be in this tournament,” K-State coach Frank Martin said. “I hope they understand that Washington, Seton Hall, think about Drexel, they won 23 of their last 25 games, and none of those guys get in this tournament. You have to be a special group and fortunate to be invited into this thing.”
K-State proved it belonged by winning 21 games and finishing fifth in the Big 12 standings. But nothing felt like a given after losing to Baylor in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. K-State players wanted a shot at redemption.
The seed or first opponent didn’t matter. That’s part of the reason why no one seemed to mind a potential second-game matchup with No. 1 seed Syracuse.
But first is Southern Mississippi.
“We know what can happen if we slip up and lose,” junior forward Rodney McGruder said. “It could be the end of our season. We’re just putting everything into the practices that are coming up so we know we gave it our all.”
Southern Mississippi finished second in Conference USA and is coached by Larry Eustachy, who led the Cyclones to two Big 12 championships before being fired in 2003.
“When Larry Eustachy coached at a BCS school his teams were known as the hardest-playing teams in the country,” Martin said. “That hasn’t changed. He’s just at Southern Miss. Maybe they aren’t on TV as much as other schools, but I suspect it’s going to be a hard-playing, hard-rebounding, defensive-minded team.”
Sounds a lot like Kansas State, doesn’t it?
“That’s what makes it a tough game,” McGruder said. “Going against somebody that plays just as hard as you do.”
If K-State wins, it will likely face Syracuse in the next round. Syracuse (31-2) won the Big East and was ranked No. 1 for part of the season.
The Orange, located closer to Pittsburgh than K-State, will likely play with a crowd advantage. But several K-State players have family on the East Coast. Jamar Samuels, Jordan Henriquez and McGruder said they will be playing in front of friendly faces.
“There is going to be a lot of purple in the stands,” Samuels said.
Regardless, they would welcome a game against a traditional power.
“Going against a No. 1 seed is just like playing any other team in our conference,” Henriquez said. “It’s just a great feeling and another great opportunity in front of us.”
A Sweet 16 game for K-State would be in Boston. Other teams it could see at the regional site include Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, Florida State and Ohio State — all teams that are accustomed to playing in the NCAA Tournament.
“I’m comfortable with the fact that our kids are great and that our guys will prepare the right way,” Martin said, “and I’m ecstatic about the opportunity that has been afforded to us. Never take it for granted.”