Beside the fact that it is an eight-nine matchup in terms of the seeding, which generally is a reflection of how closely the two teams are in their season’s performance, this game features a distinct contrast in talent and style of play.
Kentucky is extremely talented, with eight McDonald’s All-Americans on its roster, but also very young. Kansas State is not blessed with the same talent level and plays a more deliberate, half-court game and tight, on-ball pressure that is better suited to the collective skills and abilities of its players.
A number of experts have said Kentucky is grossly underseeded in this tournament. The truth is, the team that began the 2013-14 season as the No. 1-ranked team in the preseason polls stumbled right out of the gate, losing to a more experienced Michigan State team in the on of the early-season showcase games. As talented as they are, the Wildcats experienced growing pains with such a young group and went through periods of inconsistency that made them look very ordinary at times.
Coach John Calipari’s bunch come into the tournament with an overall record of 24-10, very similar to Kansas State’s 20-12 record. Kentucky had lost three out of four heading into last week’s SEC Tournament, but they won their first two games in the conference tournament and lost by just a single point in the championship game to No. 1-ranked Florida, the top overall seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
The leading scorers on both Kentucky and Kansas State are freshman. For Kentucky, 6-9 Julius Randle averages 15.4 points a game. Marcus Foster , a 6-2 shooting guard, leads the way for K-State with the same scoring average as Kentucky’s Randle.
Kentucky will have a big size advantage on the boards. The Blue Grass State Wildcats’ two guards (the Andrew and Aaron Harrison), at 6-6, are almost as tall as Kansas State center Thomas Gibson, who stands 6-7. Kentucky likes to push the ball and play fast, which is in exact opposition to Kansas State’s slower, more deliberate pace.
The Big 12’s Wildcats are not the best of shooting teams (they only shoot 43 percent as a team and average just shy of 70 points a game), but they make up for it with outstanding defense. Kansas State’s opponents average around 66 points a game.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t think we can make a run of it (in this year’s NCAA Tournament),” Kentucky sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein said at the team’s press conference on Thursday. “And, you know, a lot of people don’t want us to make a run at it. A lot of people don’t think we’re going to make it past the first (game).”
Said Kansas State lone starting senior, point guard Will Spradling: “Obviously Kentucky has the name and the tradition. But they have about the same record as we have, and I feel we had a tougher schedule and play in a tougher league.”
The winner of this game will probably get a shot at Wichita State, the Midwest Region’s No. 1 seed.
My pick: Kentucky 75, Kansas State 69