K-State faces NCAA Cat fight

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In the hours after practice Sunday afternoon leading up to the anticipated news, members of the Kansas State basketball program sat in the basketball training facility and casually watched other games. Multiple televisions were on. Everybody was just waiting for Selection Sunday. However, no one knew that they were actually watching their next opponent give Florida, the country's top team, a solid run for their money in the SEC championship game.
Yes, K-State will play Kentucky, who just lost to the Gators 61-60, in its first game of the NCAA Tournament this week in St. Louis. It's go time.
"It's a special feeling," K-State coach Bruce Weber said Sunday evening. "I told them yesterday it's the greatest sporting event in the world."
For the fifth consecutive season and the second straight year under Weber, the Wildcats are officially headed to the Big Dance. K-State, 20-12 and a No. 9 seed in the tournament's loaded Midwest Region, will face No. 8 Kentucky, 24-12, at 8:40 p.m. CST Friday at the Scottrade Center.
"That's a nice honor for our guys, for our program, for our university, and then we get a chance to play one of the top schools in the history of college basketball," Weber said. "It should be fun."
The excitement level was high early Sunday evening for a K-State team that is coming off a 91-85 loss to eventual champion Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals last week. And rightfully so. There's plenty of intriguing storylines entering the matchup. For starters, the opponent has a prominent name with big-time talent.
"My face lit up," senior forward Shane Southwell said. "I was just ecstatic to play. I love playing against great teams and great players. When you're a high school player, when you think about certain programs, you think about Kentucky, Duke and Kansas honestly. It would be a great opportunity to beat a team of that nature."
Secondly, for players like St. Louis natives Nino Williams and D.J. Johnson, this trip will be a homecoming.
"It's real exciting," Johnson said. "I'm excited to play in front of my friends and family. I'm ready to show everyone how hard I've been working while I've been here at K-State. But the same time, I'm ready to get down to business and get a win."
Next, for a player like freshman Wesley Iwundu, this matchup will be like a reunion against two of his closet friends. Kentucky freshmen Andrew and Aaron Harrison played with Iwundu on the Houston Defenders AAU squad for several years.
"The first thing I thought about were the twins," he said. "You know I played with them in my AAU days so it's going to be fun, but it's all about business."
Then, for a player like freshman guard and leading scorer Marcus Foster, this is his first taste of this thing called March Madness.
"It was surprising to see Kentucky," Foster explained. "I thought they would be a way higher seed, but it was just a sigh of relief. I was real nervous. I knew we were going to get in but I was just nervous. I don't know why. I'm happy we get to play a Kentucky team that's really good."
Finally, for a K-State team that finished fifth in the Big 12, the nation's top conference, this will be a fresh start and a chance to make some noise.
"We're just looking to win," junior forward Thomas Gipson said. "We're going to play as a team, we'll battle it out and hopefully we'll get the win. We're not looking forward to nothing except just to play and get on the court. We're looking forward to practicing (Monday)."
With that said, and with all of the separate storylines, K-State is treating this simply as a business trip. Weber knows that this Kentucky team led by freshmen Julius Randle (15.0 points and 10.5 rebounds), James Young (14.5 points), Aaron Harrison (13.8) and Andrew Harrison (10.8) is locked and loaded and that this is the most critical time of the year.
"They have some talent, there's no doubt," the second-year coach said of John Calipari's bunch. "We're going to have to play basketball, but it doesn't matter who you're playing. You got to play good basketball. The important thing I think for us is we have to do all of the little things that made us successful. Whether it was in that stretch in December or when we had some big wins in the Big 12, that's just playing hard, guarding the heck out of people and just doing all of the little things that make a difference. If we can do that, we'll be fine."
K-State has come a long way to overcome a slow, disappointing start to the season. Now it's just time to make it count being the underdogs.
"No one expects us to win," Weber said. "We're playing Kentucky. Just go play basketball, compete and see what happens."