ST. LOUIS — Survive and advance, the unofficial motto of the NCAA Tournament, figures to be a chore for Kentucky on both counts Friday night. The Cats expect Kansas State to try to win the game by literally pushing and shoving their way through this second-round game.
Or as UK's Kiddie Cats consider it, business as unusual.
"That's been everybody's M.O. when they play us: come in and try to beat us up," Jon Hood said Thursday in a UK locker room thick with media types and bring-it-on bravado. "We just can't let it happen."
As a modus operandi, Kansas State, which starts no one taller than 6-foot-7, embraces the notion of kayoing all opponents. It's just that the strategy particularly fits a Kentucky team that starts five freshmen.
Never miss a local story.
No mildcats these Kansas State Wildcats.
"Against Kentucky, you have to hit them first," said wing Shane Southwell, a relative lightweight at 6-7 and 215 pounds. "Because they're such a big team and such an athletic team."
By now, Kentucky expects a slugfest. The win-or-go-home nature of the NCAA Tournament only heightens the anticipation.
"At this point, there's no pretty-ball really being played," UK's most physical presence, Julius Randle, said.
Junior Thomas Gipson, who provides the bulk (6-7, 265) and sets a physical tone, did not shrink from the label of tough.
"I feel that's pretty accurate," he said of himself and Kansas State. "We're kind of an under-sized team, so we want to be the gritty team."
Willie Cauley-Stein likened Gipson to Jarnell Stokes and Patric Young, strongmen from Tennessee and Florida, respectively.
"Big bodies,' Cauley-Stein said. "You can't move him like you would other people. You have to make sure when you rebound, you stay on his body so you can use your length."
Of course, Kentucky's foundational strength is rebounding.
Kansas State Coach Bruce Weber suggested a struggling start prompted a decision to get physical. K-State lost three of its first six games, the losses coming against Northern Colorado, Charlotte and Georgetown. As Gipson noted, the Wildcats had little choice but to try to cut taller opponents down to size. "I think we had to be attacking from the get-go," he said. "We're not going to get any bigger during the season."
Gipson once weighed in excess of 300 pounds, Weber said. Kansas State now lists him at 265, and when he arrived at the pre-game news conference Thursday, it appeared at least half that was in his shoulders.
"When he can get his body on people, it causes problems," Weber said.
Fittingly, it seemed, the Kansas State coach used a boxing analogy to describe how Gipson can impact games. A heavyweight boxer's body punches take a toll over 15 rebounds.
Weber also wants Gipson and company to take charges to compensate for a lack of shot-blocking ability.
"Be there when they drive the ball," Weber said before adding, "And one thing we know for certain, they're going to drive the ball."
Weber made whacking with pads a part of practices. The players spoke of "war-rebounding" drills.
"We're just hungry," Gipson said. "And I just think that's a part of us."
A gruelling Big 12 schedule further toughened Kansas State.
"I think it prepared us," Weber said of Big 12 competition. "We'll see tomorrow night.
"I know our guys won't be scared. That's an important thing."
Kentucky players noted how they've learned to push back. The Cats had plenty of survive-and-advance before the NCAA Tournament.
"Florida tried to beat us up, and we played them well," Hood said. "LSU tried to beat us up, and we got them. Georgia tried to beat us up, and we got them.
"I think we're good. I think we're in a good spot."
Both Kentucky and Kansas State suggested they had reason to stoke their feistiness with wounded psyches.
Kentucky spoke of wanting to prove the doubters wrong. "Prove that we are a team," Cauley-Stein said. "A lot of talk is we play like a bunch of individuals. You know, we're not. We're a really good team. We just needed time to figure out what's best for our team."
Kansas State, which won six games against ranked opponents (UK won one), was well aware that the more celebrated teams at this NCAA Tournament site are No. 1 Wichita State, rival Kansas and Kentucky.
"Obviously, Kentucky has the name and the tradition," Will Spradling said. "But I feel we have the tougher schedule and a lot tougher league."
Added Weber: "We've got to feel like the underdog. Every interview I hear, we have no chance to win."