ATLANTA — Just about any other year, a No. 9 seed reaching the Sweet 16 would be considered a neat feel-good story, the tale of an underdog or under-achiever finding magic at the perfect moment to keep its unlikely NCAA Tournament dreams alive.
This season, however, Kansas State somehow has managed to flip the script.
The Wildcats, seeded ninth in the NCAA’s South Region, became archenemy No. 1 for much of the college basketball world this past Sunday when they faced Maryland-Baltimore County. With 16-seed UMBC just two days removed from its shocking win against Virginia — the most historic upset in the history of the tournament — the Retrievers were the darlings of the 68-team field.
K-State played the role of villain nicely, fighting off the pesky Retrievers for a 50-43 victory that sent the Wildcats to the Sweet 16 for only the second time in 30 years.
Now, K-State must embrace the nemesis role once again. When the Wildcats (24-11) clash with No. 5 seed Kentucky (26-10) at 8:37 p.m. today, they will do so knowing much of Philips Arena will view them with hostility.
This, after all, is the heart of SEC country. For Kentucky fans, known for their passion and willingness to travel anywhere in support of their beloved blue bloods, the six-hour trek from Lexington to Atlanta may as well be a jog across town.
The throng of Kentucky supporters is expected to be so strong that one media member began a question posed to freshman guard Hamidou Diallo with this: “Word has it almost the entire state of Kentucky will be coming down here to watch you guys play.”
Exaggeration aside, Diallo and the Wildcats know there will be plenty of blue in the stands.
“We’re going to have a lot of fans here and it’s definitely a big advantage,” Diallo said, “but we’ve still got to come out and play Kentucky basketball.”
K-State, meanwhile, must not only embrace the role of villain, it also must hide its eyes from the glare of Kentucky’s national brand and the disrespect of national pundits who have labeled K-State the worst of all 16 teams still dancing.
“We really don’t pay attention to outside things or anything like that,” sophomore guard Xavier Sneed said. “So we just stay locked in to our scouting reports, of course, and just come in focused for the game.”
K-State coach Bruce Weber made certain his Wildcats were aware of the recent ESPN report that ranked K-State last among the 16 teams still remaining. For a team picked eighth in the Big 12 coaches preseason poll, the disrespect was viewed as business as usual.
“We know people doubt us,” said All-Big 12 forward Dean Wade, who hopes to return on a limited basis from the foot injury that has sidelined him for nearly two weeks. “We’ve been dealing with it all season. People don’t respect us. We know what they’re saying.”
“It is what it is,” added junior guard Barry Brown, who scored a team-high 18 points in each of K-State’s tournament wins. “It’s not the first time we’ve been the underdog. We’ve been picked eighth in our league, 16th out of 16 teams now, so it’s something we’re used to, something we’re going to use to add fuel to the fire.”
K-State needs all the fuel and fire it can find against Kentucky. The SEC Tournament champs have won nine of 10 games, feature five players who average at least 9.4 points and have length the Wildcats haven’t faced all season.
“I think our confidence level right now is as high as it’s been all season,” said freshman Kevin Knox, who averages a team-best 15.6 points. “I think we’re playing our best basketball.”
Kentucky’s size concerns K-State as much as anything. Seven of Kentucky’s top eight contributors stand at 6-5 or taller, led by 6-9 Knox, 6-9 Wenyen Gabriel, 6-10 Sacha Killeya-Jones and 6-11 Nick Richards.
“We’re going to have to move them,” Weber said. “If we let them stand, we’ll have trouble. But if we get them moving and get a couple easy shots, we can fight them the whole game.”
K-State enters the contest 0-9 all-time against Kentucky, including a loss in the 1951 national championship game. A win not only would end that drought, it also would prove a whole bunch of doubters wrong.
“That would be huge,” Brown said. “We haven’t really played a Kentucky-caliber team outside of our conference. Doing it against anyone would be big-time, but especially Kentucky with their background, their history and their coaches and stuff like that.”