MANHATTAN — Before giving his team two days off to recover from a disappointing loss in the Big 12 Tournament last week, Frank Martin told Kansas State players to expect a mid-range seed in the NCAA Tournament.
So the Wildcats genuinely celebrated Sunday afternoon when they learned of their postseason assignment.
K-State exceeded expectations by earning a No. 5 seed in the Southeast Regional. It faces No. 12 seed Utah State in a highly anticipated first-round game at 8:57 Thursday night in Tucson.
While some across the country criticized the tournament selection committee, Martin couldn't stop smiling.
"They respected the fact that we played a strong schedule," Martin said. "They respected the fact that our kids played real well coming down the stretch and grew as a team."
Heading into Sunday's bracket unveiling, most experts tabbed K-State as a No. 6 or No. 7 seed. So did the Wildcats themselves. But they landed a more favorable spot by winning eight of their final 10 games.
"Five is very good," Jamar Samuels said. "We're playing our way into something big."
If K-State defeats Utah State, it will face Wisconsin or Belmont in the second round. Should the Wildcats advance past the tournament's first weekend, as they did a year ago, they could face top-seeded Pittsburgh or Butler in the Sweet 16 at New Orleans. No. 2 seed Florida and No. 3 seed BYU highlight the other half of the region.
Getting that far could be difficult, though. Utah State (30-3), which won the WAC regular season and tournament championships, heads into the postseason ranked 23rd nationally.
"They're a good, well-coached, physical team that deserves to be seeded a little higher," Samuels said. "But they've got a 12-seed and we got them. It's going to be a pretty good game."
K-State coaches began prep work on the Aggies as soon as they appeared next to the Wildcats on TV. Before speaking with media, Martin had already looked over a folder on Utah State and dispersed assistant Matt Figger to begin a more thorough scout.
But the initial impression was strong. Martin respects the job longtime coach Stew Morrill has done at Utah State, and senior forward Tai Wesley is one of the nation's top big men, averaging 14.7 points and eight rebounds.
Martin figured he wouldn't have to talk the Aggies up to his players.
"You understand that in this tournament, regardless of what league you're from, regardless of what the opponent's name is, every team is good," Martin said. "Every team is in this tournament because they're a championship contender. That means that they're worthy of playing high-level games and having this opportunity. I think our leadership will accept that and not prepare differently than when we're playing whoever in our conference."
K-State knew it would face a capable opponent in the first round, but it was more worried about the type of team it would encounter.
"It's about matchups," senior guard Jacob Pullen.
So far, the Wildcats like what lies in front of them.
"I haven't seen too many teams in our bracket that are as athletic as us," said senior forward Curtis Kelly. "So I think we'll be fine. We've just got to focus in."