By Wendell Barnhouse | firstname.lastname@example.org
After losing three starters from last year's Big 12 regular-season champions and NCAA Tournament teams, there was some doubt if Kansas State could return to The Big Dance.
The Wildcats earned an at-large bid and a No. 9 seed in the Midwest Regional. Only they likely didn't imagine that their second-round opponent would be one of college basketball's iconic programs.
Kansas State takes on No. 8 Kentucky Friday in St. Louis. The Wildcats from Lexington are making their 54th trip to the NCAA Tournament and their 111 NCAA wins are the most of any team. Thanks to a heralded recruiting class, Kentucky started the season ranked No. 1 and there was talk in Big Blue Nation of a perfect (40-0) season.
K-State players realize that few fans or experts are giving them much of a chance.
"I mean, obviously Kentucky has the name and the tradition," Kansas State senior guard Will Spradling said. "But they have about the same record we have, and I feel like we had a tougher schedule, and play in a tougher league."
"I feel like we've been overlooked," K-State senior Thomas Gipson said. "I watch TV, we all watch TV, and we hear what people are saying. We're not going to back down."
Both teams feature freshmen leading scorers. Julius Randle, a 6-9 forward, is one of five first-year starters and he averages 15.4 points to go along with 10.6 rebounds per game. Guard Marcus Foster averages 15.4 per game to lead Kansas State.
Kentucky's 10 losses are the main reason it's a No. 8 seed. The Wildcats' chances of making a run to the national championship would appear slim.
"There's a lot of people that don't think we can make a run at it," sophomore forward Willie Cauley-Stein said Thursday. "And you know, a lot of people don't want to see us make a run at it. A lot of people think we're not going to make it past the first (game)."
With all the doubting and questioning, one thing is certain: A team nicknamed "Wildcats" is going to win.
8:40 p.m. Friday, St. Louis
No. 9 Kansas State (20-12) vs. No. 8 Kentucky (24-10)
Probable Kansas State starters: Marcus Foster, 6-2 Fr. G; Will Spradling, 6-2 Sr. G; Nino Williams, 6-5 Jr. F; Thomas Gipson, 6-7 Jr. F; Wesley Iwundu, 6-7 Fr. F.
Probable Kentucky starters: Aaron Harrison, 6-6 Fr. G; Andrew Harrison, 6-6 Fr. G; James Young, 6-6 Fr. G; Julius Randle, 6-9 Fr. F; Dakari Johnson, 7-0 Fr. C.
Fast breaks: Kansas State is making its 28th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance and fifth in a row – a school record. … Seniors Omari Lawrence, Ryan Schultz, Shane Southwell and Will Spradling are just the third senior class to advance to four consecutive NCAA Tournaments. … K-State coach Bruce Weber is 1-5 in his last six NCAA Tournament appearances. … Kentucky averages 15.9 second-chance points per game, most for any major conference team. … Kentucky starts five freshmen and four average in double figures – Julius Randle (15.4 points per game), James Young (14.6), Aaron Harrison (13.5) and Andrew Harrison (10.8). Randle also averages 10.6 rebounds per game.
What's next: The winner of Kansas State-Kentucky plays on Sunday against the winner of No. 1 Wichita State vs. No. 16 seed Cal Poly.