ST. LOUIS, Mo. — The Kentucky Wildcats, ranked No. 1 in most preseason polls and unranked now, are playing the us-against-the-world card as they prepare to take on the Kansas State Wildcats tonight around 9:45 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional.
Kentucky comes in at 24-10 and seemingly on an uptick off a runner-up finish in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, while coach Bruce Weber’s Kansas State team has lost its last three games and is 20-12 overall.
UK coach John Calipari heavily criticized the NCAA Tournament selection committee earlier this week after seeing his Wildcats seeded No. 8 in the region. Calipari did not mention seeding Thursday, though his players made at least indirect references to it.
“We want to shock the world,” said 7-foot sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein of Kentucky. “There’s a lot of people that don’t think that we can make a run at it. And, you know, a lot of people don’t want to see us make a run at it.
“But, despite how the season went, now the real season begins for us. I think this whole thing is just trying to shock the world and do what people say we can’t do.”
Asked how he would define ‘shock-the-world,’ Cauley-Stein replied: “Start winning. A lot of people think we’re not going to make it past the first round. So winning the game would shock the world.”
Freshman forward James Young said the Wildcats look at post-season as a fresh start after a regular season that was, at best, inconsistent and disappointing.
“We have to just play every game tough and show people we can compete with anybody,” Young said. “We had an up and down season, but it is a fresh start for us. The past is the past.”
The Wildcats certainly showed a willingness to put the past behind them in an impressive run in the SEC tournament that ended with a 61-60 loss to No. 1 ranked Florida Sunday. Calipari’s players looked much better, both collectively and individually, in rolling past LSU and Georgia on their way to the tough loss to Florida.
“Really it’s our confidence,” Young said when asked about UK’s improvement. “Our practices have been really hard, and that’s given us the right mindset to play confident and play with each other. We’ve come together as a team ... just playing really hard.”
If Kentucky can get past Kansas State, the Wildcats will likely see the region’s No. 1 seed, undefeated Wichita State, in the round of 32 here Sunday. A potential matchup with Louisville looms in the round of 16 next week in Indianapolis.
The Wildcats believe all their own pre-season goals are still very much within reach.
“This is another chance for us to validate what people said we could do at the beginning of the year,” said freshman guard Aaron Harrison. “We became a much better team in the last month or so, especially in the last two or three weeks. I think we can go as far as we want to go. We were pre-season No. 1, and we can end up at the end of the season No. 1 as well as long as we fight and stay together.”
Calipari said his team’s confidence is well grounded.
“We’re happy to be in the tournament and probably playing as well right now as we have played all year,” Calipari said. “It has taken some time. We thought we had it, and then we lost it, and now we have it back. So we’re feeling pretty good.”
Calipari said his players have never stopped believing in each other or in the team goals.
“It’s been an onslaught of criticism, personal, coaching, team ... all of that,” Calipari said. “But they believe in each other, in the staff and in what we are trying to do. That tells a lot about them and their character.”
Tonight’s game promises to be a battle of Kentucky’s height and balance against the defensive intensity of Kansas State.
Kentucky’s Wildcats have a massive size advantage over their Wildcat counterparts from Manhattan, Kansas. KSU has only one player taller than 6-foot-7: 6-9 sophomore center D.J. Johnson. KSU’s starting lineup is 6-7, 6-7, 6-5, 6-2 and 6-2.
However, one of the 6-2 guys, freshman Marcus Foster, is one of the best young point guards in the country.
Thomas leads K-State in scoring at 15.6 points per game, and is also a tenacious defender.
UK’s height is well documented, led by Cauley-Stein and fellow 7-footer Dakari Johnson, along with the 6-9 Randle.
“They are not going to beat themselves,” Calipari said. “They run good stuff. And defensively, they’re coming at you. They don’t give up an inch. So, yes, they may not be 7-foot tall, but there aren’t many teams in the college basketball 7-foot tall. I think they’re an outstanding team. It’s a tough game for anybody to play.”