ST. LOUIS — About the only thing Kansas and Eastern Kentucky have in common is that they are playing each other in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The Jayhawks are the big, bruising bullies from the Big 12, touting a roster stocked with five-star freshmen, a championship-winning coach and enough March pedigree to stack up with St. Patrick.
The Colonels are the scrappy underdogs from the Ohio Valley Conference, whose senior-laden roster would rather shoot 3-pointers than free throws and that relishes the underdog role.
The No. 2 seed Jayhawks and 15th-seeded Colonels meet Friday in St. Louis, with the winner getting seventh-seeded New Mexico or 10th-seeded Stanford in the third round.
“Being the underdog is always fun,” said the Colonels’ Glenn Cosey, “especially if you can pull off an upset. And a lot of people seem to get with the underdog, so it should be fun.”
The fellas from Eastern Kentucky all seem to have their favorite upset memory, too.
Eric Stutz, the 6-foot-8 forward with the hippie-style “peace and love” bandanna, grew up in Indiana and watched Butler reach two Final Fours. Top defender Corey Walden remembers Lehigh, also a No. 15 seed, knocking off second-seeded Duke a couple of years ago.
“I don’t have a favorite upset memory, but I’m hoping that we can pull off one,” said Cosey, the Colonels’ leading scorer, “and that would be my favorite memory.”
They’ve got a tall task ahead of them in more ways than one.
Kansas (24-9) will be playing without 7-footer Joel Embiid, who’s been ruled out for the opening weekend with a stress fracture in his back. But the Big 12 champs still have far more size, length and athleticism than the Colonels, who prefer to hang around the perimeter all game.
The Jayhawks have also been through the ringer this season: They have played 20 games against 12 opponents who made the NCAA tournament, none of those teams seeded worse than ninth.
“We’re young. We’re hungry. We want to win,” Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins said. “We’re just trying to have that killer mentality. All of us just want to destroy our opponents.”
Indeed, it’s Eastern Kentucky (24-9) that will be relying on experience. Kansas has five new starters this year, including two freshmen in Wiggins and Wayne Selden, while the Colonels start two juniors and three seniors who were part of a 25-win team a season ago.
“I worry about how everybody is going to respond,” Kansas coach Bill Self said, recalling a similarly youthful 2005 team that lost to Bucknell in the opening round. “I just want our guys to be loose, carefree and have fun. The hay is in the barn, so to speak.”
Youth vs experience. Size vs speed. Top dogs vs underdogs. They are all things to watch for when Kansas meets Eastern Kentucky at Scottrade Center. Here are five more:
TURNOVER TROUBLE — The Colonels are sixth nationally in steals at nearly 9 per game, and rank the same in turnover margin at better than 6 per game. Meanwhile, the Jayhawks are ranked 299th in turnover margin by turning the ball over twice more per game than their opponents.
“You cannot give them fast-break layups or dunks,” Eastern Kentucky coach Jeff Neubauer said.
MISSING JOEL — The Jayhawks will be playing their fifth straight game without Embiid, their 7-foot freshman. Self is hopeful that he’ll be back if the Jayhawks advance through the weekend, and said Thursday that Embiid is making progress with his rehabilitation.
“It does change, because we can make mistakes before and mistakes can be wiped away,” Self said, explaining how the loss of Embiid’s inside presence affects the Jayhawks. “Now, mistakes turn into layups. And so that’s obviously a big difference.”
EKU CAN GO DEEP — Eastern Kentucky has hit 303 shots from beyond the 3-point arc, the third-most in Division I. The Jayhawks have struggled against teams that can shoot from the perimeter, falling to a similar Iowa State team in the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament.
BUT EKU CAN’T REBOUND — Kansas has outrebounded its opponent by nearly 8 boards per game, putting it among the top 10 nationally. Eastern Kentucky is outrebounded by more than 6 per game, putting it among the 10 worst nationally.
MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS — The Jayhawks are 7-1 in NCAA tournament games in St. Louis, and they ought to have quite a home-court advantage. Kansas State and Wichita State are also playing at the site this weekend, and many of their fans will root for the Jayhawks.
“I like the building,” Self said, “there is no question about that.”