March 21, 2014
By Kelly McHugh
ST. LOUIS - When the K-State Wildcats (20-12, 10-8 Big 12) found out they'd be taking on the Kentucky Wildcats (24-10, 16-6 SEC) in the NCAA Tournament's second round, the team was overcome with excitement.
Kentucky - a team that entered the 2013-14 season ranked No. 1 in the nation - is in the tournament as a surprising eight seed. It's, potentially, one of the toughest matchups K-State, a nine seed, could have drawn to open up tournament play.
Yet while K-State will enter tonight's matchup the underdog, fear was nowhere to be found in the eyes of this young K-State team.
Rather, the team's energy was one of intensity, excitement and opportunity.
"It was surprising to see Kentucky (as an eight seed), I thought they'd be a way higher seed," freshman Marcus Foster said with a smile, "but I'm just happy to play this really good Kentucky team. We could make a statement. Our confidence level is high."
Today, with tipoff between the two Wildcats set for approximately 8:40 p.m. (CT) at the Scottrade Center, that attitude has not changed.
"Everybody is excited to play, because not everybody gets to play in the NCAA Tournament," junior Nino Williams said during yesterday evening's media session. "We're just using this opportunity to show the nation and the world that we can compete at the highest level in NCAA basketball."
The confidence is still there, and K-State is ready to take the court and show the country how just tough it can be.
But in order to be the best, you've got to beat the best; and that's just what K-State will have to do in order to advance and play on Sunday.
Though many key players on Kentucky's roster are young and have never experienced NCAA Tournament play - UK is led by SEC Freshman of the Year, Julius Randle, and have three other freshmen averaging double figures - the postseason success of, not only the Kentucky basketball program, but also its head coach, John Calipari, runs deep.
This year's tournament marks Kentucky's 53rd NCAA Tournament appearance - a national best - with its most recent National Championship win under Calipari in 2012.
While there's no doubt K-State will have its hands full tonight, as you look back over its 2013-14 season, there's no doubt it has what it takes to win.
When asked who he thought Kentucky reminded him of, K-State head coach Bruce Weber couldn't pinpoint just one team in the Big 12. He said competing in the Big 12, the nation's toughest conference, is a key element in preparation for his team's postseason performance.
"They have a little bit of Oklahoma State because they've got just great talent that can go to the basket," began Weber, "but they'll play like Iowa State and Oklahoma - dribble drive, beat you to the basket - and then they have some length inside too. That was the best thing about the Big 12 - you play so many good teams. Twenty of our thirty games were against either NCAA or NIT teams. We played a lot of good people. We beat good people, and hopefully we have a weekend like when we played Texas and KU and we played at a high level. We have to match that this weekend."
Along with a stellar Big 12 opening weekend where K-State beat then-No. 6 Oklahoma State, 74-71, the Wildcats went on to defeat then-No. 25 Oklahoma, No. 15 Texas and No. 7 Kansas. All four teams are represented in the NCAA Tournament this year with Kansas (No. 2 seed), Texas (No. 7 seed) and Oklahoma (No. 5 seed) all seeded higher than Kentucky.
"The Big 12 has definitely prepared us," Foster said. "I see Kentucky like a Kansas team - very big inside, great guard play. I feel like those two teams match up well, and we beat Kansas. So hopefully that can carry over into the tournament for us."
They've done it before, and they know they can do it again. So for Weber, his message to his team is simple: cherish this moment - you never know if you'll have this opportunity again.
"It's always special, every time," Weber said of the NCAA Tournament. "We told the freshmen, 'You don't know if you'll ever get back here. You hope so, but at the same time, you better grab the opportunity and make the most of it.' For the seniors, four years in a row, they're only the third class in the history of the school to go to four straight, so you hope they want more.
"We just have to be the best prepared team on the court at 8:40 on Friday night. We have to play with great determination. They have better athleticism, they have taller people, they have a lot of things that we just can't do anything about, but if we're prepared and we play hard, we'll give it a game."