ST. LOUIS — The kids from Kentucky began the season No. 1. They sure think they can end it that way.
After a wild roller-coaster ride for one of the most heralded recruiting classes in history, the Wildcats begin their NCAA tournament as the No. 8 seed against No. 9 seed Kansas State on Friday night in St. Louis. The winner will face top-ranked Wichita State or No. 16 seed Cal Poly.
Asked if the preseason ranking was unfair for a team starting five freshmen, Kentucky coach John Calipari scoffed. There are always expectations for the blue-bloods from the Bluegrass State.
“You’re at Kentucky. That’s part of it,” Calipari said. “Some of it was, you know, you build it up so high it gives you a chance to start whacking at it. But that’s part of it.
“And again, they have handled it great,” he said, “and I’m proud of them.”
Only three players from Kentucky have played in the NCAA tournament — junior Brian Long and seniors Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson — and they’ve done it for a combined 10 minutes. That makes the Wildcats (24-10), runners-up in the SEC tournament, the youngest team in this year’s field.
Not that it means much. The youngest teams in the past two tournaments have been Michigan, the runner-up to Louisville a year ago, and Kentucky, which beat Kansas for the title in 2012.
“It’s a chance for us to validate what people said we could do at the beginning of the year,” said Aaron Harrison, one of those starting freshmen. “We became much better in the last month or so, especially in the last two weeks. It’s a new season, we get another opportunity to play, and just go out there and have fun and see what we can do.”
Kansas State (20-12) has something to prove, too.
Nobody expected much of the Wildcats from the Little Apple this season. They lost most of their best players from last year’s NCAA tournament team, and they’re starting a pair of freshmen, too.
And it seems that nobody thinks they have a chance against Kentucky, either.
“I feel like we’ve been overlooked. I watch TV, we all watch TV, and we hear what people are saying,” said Kansas State forward Thomas Gipson. “We’re not going to back down.”
Will Spradling shrugged when he was asked why nobody seems to be giving Kansas State a shot.
“I mean, obviously Kentucky has the name and the tradition,” he said. “But they have about the same record we have, and I feel like we had a tougher schedule, and play in a tougher league.”
So, it seems both teams have a chip on their shoulders. Here are five things to keep in mind when they meet up in Friday night’s game at the Scottrade Center:
FRIEND OR FOE — Kentucky twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison played on the same AAU team as Kansas State’s Wesley Iwundu, whose teammate Marcus Foster played against all three of them. Throw in Julius Randle, who played on a rival team in Texas, and there’s plenty of familiarity.
“We’re definitely going out to win,” Aaron Harrison said. “There’s nothing about that. I mean, we’ll still be friends after the game.”
GETTING PHYSICAL — Kansas State may not be the biggest team around, but it just may be the most physical. That’s something that stood out on the scouting tape put together by the Kentucky coaches, and something just about everyone from their team brought up on Thursday.
“They rely on their defense and we have a lot of athleticism,” Kentucky forward James Young said. “If we just spread the court out, I think we’ll be fine.”
LONG TIME COMING — Kentucky and Kansas State have only met once in the NCAA tournament: the 1951 championship game at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. Kentucky came out on top, 68-58.
SENIOR LEADERSHIP — Spradling and fellow senior Shane Southwell are playing in their fourth NCAA tournament, only the third senior class in Kansas State history to accomplish that feat. But it’s not something either of them plans to dwell on anytime soon.
“It’s a great accomplishment for us and K-State as a program. Two straight classes have done that,” Southwell said, “but we’re not focused on that at all.”
BETTER MEMORIES — Kentucky has already assured itself a better ending to this season than last, when it lost to Robert Morris in the NIT. Now, Kansas State wants to improve on its showing after it lost to No. 13 seed LaSalle as the fourth seed in the NCAA tournament.
“We don’t want that same taste we had in our mouths last year,” Southwell said.