KSU gets Kentucky to open tourney

By Joel Jellison

As soon as Kansas State’s matchup with Kentucky appeared during the Sunday’s NCAA tournament selection show, Wildcat Bruce Weber received a message from Ernie Barrett.

The legendary Wildcat told Weber he wanted the team to go win one for him to make up for a loss to Kentucky in the 1951 national championship game — the last time the teams met in the NCAA tournament.

“Ernie called me already,” Weber said. “He’s still mad about the national championship game. He wants us to get some revenge for him.”

K-State (20-12) is the No. 9 seed in the Midwest Region and plays 8-seed Kentucky (24-10) on Friday at 8:40 p.m. in St. Louis.

The winner would likely go on to face Wichita State — the top seed in the Midwest — as all three teams from Kansas are set to make their way to St. Louis this week. The Jayhawks are the No. 2 seed in the South Region.

It will mark a school-record fifth straight appearance in the NCAA tournament for K-State, and the fourth straight for seniors Will Spradling and Shane Southwell.

Southwell, who admitted he’s been nervous for the NCAA seeding every year, said seeing the matchip with Kentucky got him excited.

“My face lit up,” he said. “I love playing against great teams and great players. When you’re a high school player and you think about certain programs, you think about Kentucky, Duke and Kansas. It’d be a great opportunity to beat a team of that (level) in Kentucky.”

Kentucky had been seeded as high as a six in the last Bracketology this past weekend and came within a possession of beating No. 1 seed Florida for the SEC tournament title on Sunday afternoon.

Weber said he and his team watched the end of the game, just about a half hour before the selection show began. Shortly after they learned who they would be playing, he said associate head coach Chris Lowery asked the team “who’s scared?”

Kentucky does feature a daunting combination of size and talent, notably some of the top NBA-prospects in the college game. The Wildcats are highlighted by 6-foot-9 freshman Julius Randle, while boasting another pair of the nation’s top recruits in Texas twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison — who played on the same AAU team as Wesley Iwundu.

And the talent doesn’t stop there either. Kentucky’s roster is packed with some of the nation’s top high school talent from the past few years.

“Talent, that’s the number one thing,” Weber said of things he sees in Kentucky. “Youth, they’re pretty young. It starts with Randle, obviously. You’ve got a big-body guy that can do a lot of things. They have some size, point guard play — they have athletes. We’re going to have to guard them.

“Randle is a tough matchup. If we can maybe exploit some of their other things, maybe he doesn’t get the ball quite as much.”

Kentucky began the season as the top-ranked team and a popular pick to win the national title. But the Wildcats went 1-3 against top-25 ranked teams before the conference season started, and five of their six conference losses came against unranked teams.

Still, Weber said they understand the challenge that comes with playing a team as talented as the Wildcats are.

“We know that Baylor beat them early in the year, and they had some struggles two or three weeks ago,” he said. “I think they did play a little better down the stretch and had a good game (Sunday). They have some talent, there’s no doubt. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing now, you have to play good basketball.

“We get a chance to play one of the top schools in the history of college basketball. It should be fun. I hope our guys are fired up. If they aren’t fired up, then we should go home.”

K-State players were wearing new Nike shirts on Sunday that read K-StateMent. Freshman Marcus Foster said a good game against Kentucky could give them a chance to make a statement for the school and the Big 12.

“I’m happy we get to play a Kentucky team that’s good,” Foster said. “I was in shock, I didn’t think we’d play them in the first round, but I’m excited and ready to play them.

“We could make a good statement that we’re still a good team and that our Big 12 play in the conference is going to help us.”

It will be a complete switch of roles for K-State from a season ago, when they were bounced from the NCAA tournament with a second round loss to La Salle. Weber said he hopes his team learned from the loss to the Explorers that ended their season last year.

“We were the hunted, we were the name team, they were the underdog,” he said. “This year it’s probably the other way around. I hope we play like La Salle did with great heart, play loose and free and go at them.

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