NCAA Tournament: How long can the Cats hang on? UK faces rough road

broberts@herald-leader.comMarch 16, 2014 

  • Tournament opener

    Kentucky vs. Kansas State

    Midwest Regional at St. Louis

    When: 9:40 p.m. Friday

    Records: No. 8 seed Kentucky 24-10, No. 9 Kansas State 20-12

    Kentucky Roster | Schedule/results | Team Stats
    Kansas State Roster | Schedule/results | Team Stats

    ABOUT KANSAS STATE

    Location: Manhattan, Kan.

    Enrollment: 24,581

    Nickname: Wildcats

    School colors: Purple and White

    Head coach: Bruce Weber (48-20 in two seasons at Kansas State; 360-175 in 16 seasons overall)

    Conference: Big 12 (Kansas State finished fifth in the regular season, then lost its conference tournament opener to eventual champion Iowa State.)

    All-time series: Kentucky leads 8-0

    Last meeting: Kentucky won 74-72 on Nov. 28, 2008 at the Las Vegas Invitational.

    Most notable victory this season: Kansas State defeated No. 2 South Regional seed Kansas 85-82 in overtime on Feb. 10 at Kansas State.

Coach John Calipari all but called it a conspiracy — again — minutes after seeing Kentucky's seed and draw in the NCAA Tournament.

The selection committee chairman, of course, said the Wildcats got exactly what they deserved.

Agree to disagree, Calipari's Cats will be a No. 8 seed when they take the floor against Kansas State on Friday night in St. Louis. Nothing they can do about it now.

"We're in the tournament," Calipari said. "Time to play ball."

UK will have to play it well to extend this season.

Kansas State comes into the tournament losers of three straight and five of its last eight games, but the Big 12's Wildcats have shown they can beat the best too.

Their most recent victory came against Iowa State, a No. 3 seed, the Big 12 Tournament champions and one of the hottest teams in the country going into March Madness.

Kansas State also counts victories over Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Oklahoma State and Gonzaga — all top-40 teams nationally, according to the NCAA selection committee.

If UK wins its opener, the next opponent will likely be top-seeded Wichita State.

The Shockers (34-0) are the first team since UNLV in 1990 to enter the NCAA Tournament with an undefeated record. They went to the Final Four last season and have won their last nine games by double digits — five of the last six by 20 or more points.

Wichita State plays the winner of California-Poly and Texas Southern in the round of 64. A No. 1 seed has never lost its tournament opener.

Defeat Kansas State and the Shockers, and UK could very well face Louisville. Rick Pitino's Cardinals — the defending national champions — have been one of the best teams in the country in recent weeks, yet they were given only a No. 4 seed by the committee.

Michigan and Duke are among the teams at the bottom of UK's Midwest Regional, which will be played in Indianapolis. The Wolverines would have been a No. 1 seed if they'd won their Big Ten title game Sunday.

Calipari — no stranger to questioning the NCAA committee's final product — seemed less than pleased with the latest bracket, which was released less than an hour after his team came within a basket of defeating Florida, the tournament's No. 1 overall seed.

The UK coach downplayed any fan advantage the Cats might have in St. Louis, noting the city's proximity to the campuses of Kansas State and Wichita State. "Everybody's gonna have fans," he said.

Calipari also implied that the committee might have looked for "the most physical team out there" before placing Kansas State opposite Kentucky.

Several times, he said Sunday's SEC Tournament championship game didn't matter to the committee.

"We'd have been an eight if we won this game," Calipari said. "Why are you laughing for? It's the truth. We'd have been an eight. They made their minds up that that's what this team was. The only way you can prove them wrong is go play ball, and we played today. I'm proud of the guys, and we'll go play, go to St. Louis and play."

NCAA committee chairman Ron Wellman said Sunday's game did matter, and UK could have "possibly" earned a better seed with a victory.

The consensus among ESPN's Joe Lunardi and his band of bracketologists was that UK would be a No. 6 seed in this tournament. Wellman, the longtime athletics director at Wake Forest, said the Cats' résumé wasn't good enough to earn that spot.

"The factor that probably hurt Kentucky as much as anything is that they had two wins against tournament teams, both of which occurred in December," Wellman said. "They had 14 wins against Top 100 teams, but the majority of those were against teams in the 75-100 range. So those were two of the factors that probably most people, when evaluating the seed line, did not realize.

"When we compared Kentucky's résumé to the other résumés ... the committee was strongly supportive of their seed line and where they ended up."

The Wildcats actually had three victories against tournament teams — Louisville, Providence and Tennessee — but that's beside the point.

UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart was also disappointed with the Cats' seed, but he said of the selection committee: "They're honest guys. Don't ever question the integrity of the guys in the room."

Calipari acknowledged that he had no other choice but to turn the page, saying several times that the number next to his team's name really doesn't matter once the games begin.

"We just got to go play now," he said. "It is what it is. It doesn't matter where they seed you now. It's over."

His players reacted to the perceived slight with a collective shrug of the shoulders.

They were just minutes removed from nearly knocking off the No. 1 team in the country, showing grit in a comeback bid that fell just short after playing some of their best ball of the season in the two previous games.

Kansas State, Wichita State, maybe Louisville, maybe Duke. Sure, its sounds like a tough road. But these Wildcats sound ready for the journey.

"Yeah, it's a stacked region," said freshman center Dakari Johnson. "But I think we showed today that we can compete with anybody in the country. So as long as we do that, I think we'll be fine."

Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216. Twitter: @NextCats. Blog: ukrecruiting.bloginky.com.

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