Each team may be missing a key contributor when Kentucky plays Kansas State in the South Region semifinals Thursday.
For UK, that player is Jarred Vanderbilt, the team’s leading rebounder. He has not played since the regular season’s final game at Florida because of a lower left leg injury.
On Wednesday, Vanderbilt said his leg was feeling better and he’d give it a test at practice later in the day. But even if he can play, Vanderbilt did not suggest he can play a major role.
“I think the main thing I can do is (be) an extra body on the bench,” he said. “If guys get in foul trouble, even if it’s limited minutes, just to have me out there.”
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Vanderbilt acknowledged that with UK having won nine of its last 10 games, he’s mindful of how his return might disrupt team chemistry.
“I don’t want to mess up anything,” he said. He labeled a possible playing role here as “for emergency reasons only.”
As he did before the games the previous two weeks, UK Coach John Calipari said that the postseason requires players to be 100 percent healthy.
So might Vanderbilt play against Kansas State? “My guess is no,” Calipari said. “But it would be nice to have him there. Like last game, we had foul trouble.”
Kansas State may play without Dean Wade, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder. A foot injury sidelined him the last three games. Last weekend, Wade said he was “98 percent sure” he’d play against UK.
But Coach Bruce Weber did not suggest Wade could have a big role.
“If he plays, it’ll be a minutes-limit,” Weber said. “Two minutes here. Two minutes there. See how he does. . . .
“It’s such a sad thing he can’t play because, obviously, we’re here because of what he’s done.”
And, Weber added, “you only get this opportunity so many times.”
For those wanting to say Kentucky has the easiest region to win in the history of the NCAA Tournament, here are two alternative nominees:
▪ The 1981 Mideast Region in Bloomington, Ind.: No. 1 seed DePaul, No. 2 Kentucky and No. 4 Wake Forest all lost in the first weekend. That left No. 3 Indiana at home with No. 7 UAB, No. 9 St. Joseph’s and No. 5 Boston College.
Indiana beat UAB 87-72 and St. Joseph’s 78-46 to advance to the Final Four and the eventual national championship.
▪ The 2000 West Region: The top three seeds — Arizona, St. John’s and Oklahoma — all lost in the second round. LSU was the No. 4 seed. Joining the Tigers in the Sweet 16 were six-seed Purdue, eight-seed Wisconsin and 10-seed Gonzaga.
Wisconsin advanced to the Final Four by beating LSU 61-48 and Purdue 64-60.
Seed means . . .
Wade cautioned against putting too much importance on Kansas State being a nine-seed.
“Just because we have a high seed doesn’t mean we’re not good,” he said.
Kansas State players spoke of the importance they place on defense.
“We’re a defense-oriented team,” Wade said. “Defense is our main staple. We’ve got everybody bought into our defense.”
Weber recalled Kentucky’s defense in beating his Kansas State team 56-49 in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
“We could not score,” the Kansas State coach said. “They were just so big, so long, so athletic. . . . I thought we could get some things, and we didn’t get them.”
Weber said player and ball movement would be key to trying to score against Kentucky this time.
“You can’t let them stand there,” he said. “It’s the tower. If you don’t move the tower, it’s going to be tough.”
Cartier Diarra described Kansas State as a one-for-all team.
“We don’t have a true superstar player . . . ,” he said. “We need everybody. We’re real team-based.”
We shall overcome
If the three other teams are supposed to be mere window dressing at the so-called “Kentucky Invitational,” Loyola felt the part on Wednesday.
“I might have thought that with our problem getting to the arena . . . ,” Coach Porter Moser said. “We were supposed to get an escort. We didn’t. And nobody knew how to get here. Our bus driver didn’t know. And it took 35, 40 minutes to get here.
“But you overcome it. I told our guys, it’s our first thing of overcoming. It’s like a couple turnovers early. You’ve got to put it behind you and overcome.”
The UK Alumni Association plans a pep rally Thursday at the Social Table, which is inside the Georgia World Congress. Fans should enter the International Boulevard entrance of Building B.
The rally will be from 5-7 p.m. The Georgia World Congress is next to Philips Arena.
Another pep rally is planned for Saturday should Kentucky beat Kansas State.
Brian Anderson, Chris Webber and sideline reporter Lisa Byington will call the game for CBS.