Kansas State Wildcats like their matchup
03/26/2012 12:23 PM
08/05/2014 2:20 PM
TUCSON — Before Kansas State took the practice floor Wednesday evening at McKale Center, players loosened up by impersonating Luis Colon.
One after another, they mimicked the former center's deep voice and eccentric facial expressions. Laughter filled the area, and made for the perfect distraction of not having Jacob Pullen, who was suffering from flu symptoms back at the team hotel.
The No. 5-seed Wildcats knew what they were doing.
They have been to the NCAA Tournament before. Pullen, who is expected to play today, has been here twice. Jamar Samuels and Curtis Kelly were part of last year's run to the Elite Eight. By now, they know how to handle the unique pressures and demands of March Madness.
In most years, that would give them an advantage heading into their second-round game at 8:57 tonight. But not when the opponent is Utah State, a No. 12 seed that went 30-3 this season and is making its third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.
In terms of experience and expectations, everything is equal. Both teams are ranked and looking for a trip to the Sweet 16. In a neutral-setting this is a game that should come down to purely what happens on the court.
"It's the NCAA Tournament and every team here is just as good as any other," freshman guard Will Spradling said. "None of that stuff matters. It matters who comes out and plays and who takes their personnel and their scouting and uses it best in the game."
As has been the case with K-State for much of the season, it will all come down to matchups.
The Wildcats have shown a weakness defending athletic guards off the dribble. Florida, Duke and Colorado exploited that area in wins over K-State. But the Aggies don't have any players who match that description. Nor have they played many high-major opponents this season capable of playing lock-down defense.
They are the class of the Western Athletic Conference, and have more talent than most of their conference opponents. But when they have stepped out of league play to take on BYU and Georgetown, they have lost.
"I feel like they haven't played against a team that has pressured them that much," Spradling said. "I haven't seen any team get up and pressure the ball and get up in the passing lanes. That's something we do that they haven't played against."
K-State coach Frank Martin has stressed the importance of defending all week. When asked about the team's offensive strategy for today's game, several players said that hadn't been addressed.
With long perimeter players Rodney McGruder and Shane Southwell next to top defender Jacob Pullen, Martin thinks they can overwhelm Utah State. Do that, and nothing else will matter.
"They're athletic and they're probably the most physical team we've seen all season," Aggies guard Pooh Williams said. "We know we're going to have to play our best game to beat them."
The Wildcats may have an advantage in the backcourt, but Utah State will try to win the battle inside behind top scorer Tai Wesley, a senior who averages 14.7 points and 8 rebounds, and Nate Bendall, a 6-foot-9, 250-pounder can bang underneath the basket.
Both compare with the big men K-State sees regularly.
"We're going to treat them as a Big 12 team," Samuels said. "They bring two grown men to the floor."
For Utah State, the goal is to limit K-State's rebounding total.
"We've got to be able to get some offensive rebounds," Aggies coach Stew Morrill said. "We've got to be able to. Everybody needs to participate on the defensive glass. That is just a huge concern."
K-State will answer with Kelly, Samuels and Jordan Henriquez-Roberts, and in some situations go with a four-guard lineup and move Rodney McGruder to power forward. They are up for the challenge.
"Their bigs are a little undersized," Henriquez-Roberts said. "So we want to take advantage of that. Me, Curt and Jamar need to attack them inside. That's our mindset."
Coming off a loss to Colorado in the Big 12 Tournament, the Wildcats are set on sticking to their pregame goals.
More than any other, Kelly has one in mind.
"I know one thing," Kelly said. "I'm going to make sure they don't exploit us."