Few teams are capable of drawing attention away from a potential NCAA Tournament game between Kansas State and Wichita State, but Kentucky is definitely one of them.
On Sunday, K-State learned it was headed to the Midwest Region as a No. 9 seed, where it will face No. 8 Kentucky on Friday in St. Louis. A victory will send it to the round of 32, where a much-anticipated matchup with the No. 1 Shockers likely awaits.
One major obstacle stands in the way: Kentucky, a tradition-rich opponent that has won more games than any other program in college basketball history.
“They are one of the best college basketball programs ever,” K-State senior guard Will Spradling said. “It’s a team we haven’t gotten to play since I’ve been here, and it’s a team that I am excited to play.”
So excited that Spradling wouldn’t allow himself to look at the rest of the bracket. His teammates followed along. Forgive them, they said, if they had little to say about the Shockers. And definitely don’t ask about Louisville, Duke or Michigan, who are also in the Midwest Region.
“As a No. 8 or 9 seed, to think about the 1 seed you are foolish,” K-State senior guard Shane Southwell said. “Honestly, 8-9 means you have pretty much had the same type of year. To think about the 1 seed is totally foolish. It’s going to be a big game for both of us, a hard game for both teams. I don’t even know who we would play in that next game.”
K-State knows what it is getting in Kentucky, though.
This is not your ordinary No. 8 seed. Behind one of the most hyped recruiting classes in memory, some thought Kentucky could go undefeated. Fans printed up T-shirts proclaiming a 40-0 season was on the way, and UK coach John Calipari embraced those sky-high expectations in preseason interviews.
Behind Julius Randle, Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison and Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky may have more future NBA players on its roster than anyone. K-State players and coaches were watching Kentucky play Florida before the selection show.
“No one expects us to win,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “We are playing Kentucky.”
Of course, Kentucky’s talent hasn’t always translated into victories. There is a reason it is a No. 8 seed. It had plenty of struggles during its 24-10 season, losing six games in a down SEC and dropping four of its last seven in the regular season.
“They have talent, there is no doubt,” Weber said. “We are going to have to play, but against anyone you are going to have to play. The important thing for us is we have to do all the little things that made us successful. That’s just playing hard, guarding the heck out of people and doing all the little things that make a difference. If we do that we will be fine.”
Besides, K-State players think the Big 12, which sent seven teams to the NCAA Tournament, prepared them for anything.
“We played against a lot of different styles,” junior forward Nino Williams said. “We have seen a lot of different pros, the same type of players Kentucky has. Kentucky hasn’t seen what we are going to give them, but we have seen what they are going to give us. I think it is going to be a good game.”
Kentucky is 8-0 against K-State, including a victory in the 1951 national championship game. Former K-State great Ernie Barrett was on that team, and he called Weber on Sunday afternoon to inform him it was time for revenge.
Weber said he would do his best. His players reacted the same way. They began looking forward to opening the NCAA Tournament against Kentucky the moment the game was announced.
“My face lit up. I was ecstatic,” Southwell said. “I love playing against great teams and great players. When you are a high school player you think about certain programs. You think about Kentucky, Duke and Kansas. It would be a great opportunity to beat a team of that nature.”