ST. LOUIS — If things go well Friday night, the NCAA Tournament will give Kentucky big man Willie Cauley-Stein a double dose of feel-good nostalgia.
Cauley-Stein, who grew up in Spearville, Kan., spoke almost poetically about his hometown on Thursday, the day before UK plays Kansas State in its first NCAA Tournament game.
"I honestly have not had a chance to go back in a while," he said. "But when I do, it's just like (pause) it's home. You feel like I'm content sitting on the couch with my grandpa and just watching TV or sitting in the front yard and watching kids play.
"It feels like a movie."
Cauley-Stein noted how he feels like a "little celebrity" when he returns to Spearville.
"The hospitality there is great," he said. "It's a big family town. It's like that classic Friday Night Lights kind of town."
The returns home humble him, Cauley-Stein said. "I know where I come from and it's not a lot," he said. "I just know where home is."Cauley-Stein grew up a fan of Kansas State. He especially enjoyed rooting for the Wildcats led by Michael Beasley.
"I loved Kansas State back then because they were really fun to watch," he said. "That was like the biggest thing growing up when KU and K-State played."
Kansas State Coach Bruce Weber downplayed the notion of his team being physically tough.
"In this day and age, if you try on defense, everybody says you are physical," he said.
Thomas Gipson, who sets a physical tone for Kansas State, said he modeled his game after players like DeJuan Blair (Pittsburgh) and Jason Maxiell (Cincinnati).
"He's a big guy just like me," he said of Blair. "And he can score any type of way, left or right hand, hook shots, jump shots, just things that I need in order to be successful in college basketball."
'Shocking the world'
When asked what might be a reasonable goal for Kentucky in this NCAA Tournament, Cauley-Stein said, "I think just shocking the world.
"There's a lot of people that don't think that we can make a run at it."
How could UK shock the world?
"Well, a lot of people think, you know, that we're not going to make it past the first round," Cauley-Stein said. "So winning the first game would shock the world."
For much of the season, Kentucky based hope on its "upside." Because of a largely freshman team, the Cats had more.
That theme continued.
"A lot of teams aren't getting better," Andrew Harrison said. "They are what they are. I think we're the one team still getting better every game and every practice."
The Stanford-New Mexico game reunites coaches who competed as players in the ACC. Stanford Coach Johnny Dawkins played for Duke, and New Mexico Coach Craig Neal played for Georgia Tech.
"What I remember about Craig, he is a free spirit on the court," Dawkins said. "You could tell he really loved the game. He played it with joy. ...
"For me, I'd like to see athletes enjoying it. And he was one of those guys that exemplified that."
Neal smiled when asked about playing with joy.
"Back when I was younger, I think they said I was out of control," he said. "And then once I got to be a junior and senior, they thought it was just because I loved to play."
Neal noted that his father coached on the high school level for 32 years. "It's in my blood," he said.
New Mexico point guard Hugh Greenwood is from Tasmania. He acknowledged the culture shock involved in living on an island south of Australia and then New Mexico.
"From my bedroom in 'Tazzy,' I can hear the waves on the beach," he said. "I'm about a 10-second walk from the beach. Then I moved to the middle of the desert. That's the biggest shock. Not being able to wake up in the morning and go rise off in the ocean before I go to school."
Weber lauded UK's talent.
"I don't know if they are in the No. 1," he said of UK's pre-season ranking, "but they are definitely in the top group in the country when you think about athleticism, size, length. You know, basketball abilities."
A freshman, Marcus Foster leads Kansas State in scoring with an average of 15.6 points. Three of K-State's top seven scorers are freshmen.
But that didn't stop Weber from playfully making fun of how his freshmen paled when compared to UK's five-star prospects. "I think some of our guys were no-stars," he said.
Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony and Tracy Wolfson will call the game.