K-State Heads Back to NCAA Tournament

This time around, No. 9 seed K-State is headed to St. Louis, Mo., to take on the No. 8 seed Kentucky Wildcats in the tournament's second round on Friday, March 21. 
"I'm just ecstatic that we're in," head coach Bruce Weber said. "There are a lot of teams who didn't get in, and well, that was the message to the players. They should be proud of themselves. This senior group, four in a row for Will (Spradling) and Shane (Southwell), and that's a nice thing. Even as a school now, we're in the top 10 as far as consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament, and that's a nice honor for our guys, our program and our university."
Five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances is a program-best for K-State, and ties Florida for the ninth-best streak in the nation, while is the second-longest active streak in the Big 12. The 28 overall appearances ties Oklahoma for the third-most among Big 12 schools.
K-State (20-12, 10-8 Big 12) is coming off of a tight 91-85 loss to the Iowa State Cyclones in the Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship and has high hopes to build off that loss as it now looks forward to taking on Kentucky (24-10, 12-6 SEC).
"We've got a chance to play one of the top schools in the history of college basketball - it should be fun," continued Weber. "They've got some talent, there's no doubt. We're going to have to play, but it doesn't matter who you play now, you've got to play good basketball. The important thing for us is we have to do all those little things that made us successful in that stretch in December and when we had those big conference wins. That's just playing hard, guarding people, doing all the little things that make a difference. If we can do that, I think that we'll be fine."
Kentucky is coming off of a hard-fought 61-60 loss to No. 1 Florida in the SEC Championship game where, despite the loss, it saw four players score in double figures.
The team is led on the court by SEC Freshman of the Year Julius Randle, whose average of 15 points and 10.5 rebounds per game is among the best in the NCAA. A young, but powerful roster, along with Randle, Kentucky has four freshmen averaging double-digit points.
"They have talent, that's the No. 1 thing," Weber said when asked what comes to his mind when he thinks about Kentucky. "Youth, they're pretty young. It starts with Randle, who is a big body guy who can do a lot of things. They have some size, some athletes, but we're going to have to guard them and see if we can defend them. Randle is a tough matchup. Any team that has a forward who can do different things makes it tough on us, there's no doubt, but if we can maybe exploit some other things, maybe he won't get the ball as much."
For K-State's upperclassmen, they still feel the sting of losing to No. 13 seed La Salle, 63-61, in the second round of last year's NCAA Tournament. The loss cut the Wildcats' time in the tournament short and left the team with a bitter feeling they do not hope to repeat.
"Last year was a little disappointing. We didn't come prepared to beat La Salle and had an early exit," sophomore D.J. Johnson said, "Looking back at that, it just adds a little more fuel to the fire."
Also adding fuel to Johnson's fire is the fact that he will have a few extra fans in the stands as he grew up not far from the Scottrade Center in St. Louis and attended Parkway North High School.
"It's really exciting. I'm excited to play in front of my friends and family," he said. "I'm ready to show everyone how hard I've been working at K-State, but at the same time, I'm ready to get down to business and get a win."
Overall, the team believes it can, no doubt, beat Kentucky. After a season of playing and competing in the Big 12 - the nation's toughest conference - K-State is confident it will handle whatever is thrown its way.
"I think overall in the Big 12 we've been battle tested," junior Nino Williams said. "(The Big 12 Conference) has the most teams in the NCAA Tournament. We gave Iowa State, who won the Big 12 Tournament, a run for their money. It came down to a possession, so we're just looking to play how we did in that stretch against Iowa State.
"We're all happy that we were fortunate to get in the tournament after some crazy losses, but everybody feels good, everybody feels pretty confident that we can make a run. I'm just looking to win. We're going to play as a team and battle it out. Right now we're excited and hungry, and we are ready to play."
For senior Shane Southwell, the opportunity to play a household name like Kentucky is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that he's going to cherish.
"I feel like this is an opportunity to do something special," Southwell said. "We have a chance to beat a program like Kentucky - the Big Blue. Beating a team like Kentucky, that's something we dream about, that's something you want to do."
Finally, as he looks back over the season, Weber is happy with the way his young team turned around a shaky start. He's proud of his guys for not backing down when things in the beginning of the season were tough, and he is confident they'll come out with a fire burning on Friday against Kentucky.
"From where we came from at the beginning to the year until now, our guys should be very excited and feel like they've accomplished something," Weber said. "But do they want more? That's the whole thing - can we get another tank of gas and get this thing going again? We'll see.
"Last year we were the hunted and La Salle was the underdog, and this year it's the other way around. I hope we play like La Salle did, with great heart and play loose and free and go at them."
K-State's Shane Southwell celebrates a basket against Iowa State during the Big 12 Men's Basketball Championship at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri on March 13, 2014. (Scott D. Weaver/K-State Athletics) 

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