You can forgive the Kansas State Wildcats if they’re feeling a little bit like a third wheel.
Given all the hoopla surrounding everybody’s champion for the common man— Wichita State — and the usual pomp and circumstance that comes with being one of college basketball’s aristocrats — Kansas — the Wildcats must feel like the Sunflower State’s orphan.
However, Kansas State fans certainly are used to it and they like playing the no-respect card. They do it every year during football season, though I think Bill Snyder likes it that way. They have forever lived in the basketball shadow of Kansas (going 4-48 in the last 52 games against the Jayhawks will do that for you), but aren’t used to being upstaged by Wichita State, which until recently has toiled in Kansas anonymity.
Kansas State is probably tired of hearing how Wichita State has the grave misfortune of having to play big, bad, McDonald’s All-American-laden Kentucky in its second game. Apparently everyone has forgotten that Kentucky must first play Kansas State in what is called the second round (the play-in games being the so-called first round now).
Kentucky is going to have to do more than just show up against Kansas State. Bruce Weber’s Wildcats didn’t exactly finish the season with a flourish, but has the type of team that can flummox Kentucky. KSU plays sticky, physical defense and has the superstar element in the nation’s most underrated freshman, Marcus Foster.
If Kansas State can get Kentucky’s lengthy big man Willie Cauley-Stein (a Kansas native, which adds insult to injury) in foul trouble, the odds will even up in a hurry. Cauley-Stein is an albatross around the basket, a rim-protector who swats everything in sight. He’s going to have a huge advantage against stubby KSU, whose tallest player is 6-7.
If Cauley-Stein’s minutes are limited, maybe Kansas State’s punishing style can ruffle the feathers of the youthful Kentuckians, who basically play all freshmen and sophomores. Kansas State has a lot of key youngsters itself (Foster, Wesley Iwandu, Nigel Johnson), but it has more of a veteran element in Will Spradling, Thomas Gipson and Shane Southwell.
Kansas State also has the motivation of knowing that an in-state clash with Wichita State would be next up. Sunflower State fans have been clamoring for both Kansas State and Kansas to play the Shockers during the regular season, but neither have been willing — though Weber has indicated it might be a good idea while Bill Self wants to avoid the Shockers like the plague.
I never thought Weber was the right guy for the job, but I’m changing my tune. Getting players like Foster and Iwandu was a major step in the right direction and he’s going to add more pieces next year. KU might be getting McDonald’s All-Americans and one-and-doners, but Weber is getting his type of players — hungry and motivated. The gap could be starting to close.