By Cole Manbeck
As a 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament, you don’t expect to draw the preseason No. 1-ranked team as the opponent in the opening round of the Big Dance. But that’s the card Kansas State has been dealt, as the Wildcats will play Kentucky Friday at 8:40 p.m. in St. Louis.
This is a mismatch for K-State on paper. But games aren’t won on paper. It was a mismatch for South Carolina. The Gamecocks beat Kentucky. It was a mismatch for Arkansas. The Razorbacks beat Kentucky twice. It was a mismatch for LSU. The Tigers beat Kentucky. South Carolina, LSU and Arkansas weren’t selected to be in the field of 68. So this is a winnable game for the Wildcats, but they cannot be intimidated by the name on the front of their opponent’s jersey come Friday night.
Kentucky is significantly bigger than K-State. And it’s not just on the inside. Kentucky is long on the perimeter. Its starting guards are James Young (6-foot-6), Aaron Harrison (6-6) and Andrew Harrison (6-6). Julius Randle leads the Wildcats’ frontcourt with 15 points per game and 10.5 rebounds, while Willie Cauley-Stein, at 7 feet tall, anchors Kentucky’s defense with 101 blocked shots this season. Stein ranks in the top-25 in the country with 2.84 blocked shots per game. Kentucky also plays Dakari Johnson, who is a 7-foot, 265-pound freshman. Johnson only averages 12 minutes per game on the season, but has seen increased action of late and is playing much better.
The obvious advantage Kentucky has over K-State is rebounding. Kentucky is No. 2 in the country in rebounding margin, outrebounding opponents by 10 per game. K-State ranks 151st in the country, outrebounding teams by only 1.3 per game. The biggest key will be keeping Kentucky off the offensive glass. Kentucky is No. 4 in the country with 14.8 offensive rebounds per game, and it led the SEC in offensive rebounding percentage, with a 42.2 percent rate. K-State ranked second-to-last in the Big 12 in defensive rebounding percentage this season at only 67 percent.
That’s not to say K-State can’t outrebound Kentucky or outscore it in the paint. Baylor has equal size to Kentucky in its frontcourt. K-State outrebounded the Bears, the 12th-best rebounding team in the country, 33-26 in a 76-74 loss to in Manhattan. K-State outrebounded Texas 36-35 in a 67-64 loss in Austin. The Longhorns are the 11th-best rebounding team in the country. And K-State defeated KU, the No. 10 rebounding team in the country. So just because Kentucky is big inside doesn’t mean K-State can’t win the game, as the Wildcats have defeated both KU and Texas this season, and had a great shot to defeat Baylor twice.
Rebounding will obviously be critical on Friday, but the second-biggest key for K-State will be limiting its fouls, particularly on the inside with Thomas Gipson and D.J. Johnson. Kentucky has shot 1,020 free throws this season, which is the second-most in the country, and it has made 696 free throws, the third-most nationally. Kentucky averages 30 free throws per game, while K-State averages 23 attempts from the line per contest. Kentucky has had seven games this season where it has shot 40-plus free throws, and it has shot 30 or more free throws in 17 of its 34 games. K-State ranks 317th out of 345 teams with 21.7 fouls per game, and 25.5 percent of the points K-State has allowed this season have come at the free-throw line. On the offensive end of the floor, K-State has scored 21.5 percent of its points this season at the foul line, while Kentucky has scored 27 percent of its season’s points at the charity stripe.
Kentucky has four players who have shot 150 free throws or more, led by Randle, who has attempted 254, ranking 20th nationally. K-State doesn’t have a single player who has attempted more than 116 free throws (Marcus Foster).
The third key will be taking care of the basketball. Kentucky isn’t a great offensive team when you make them score in its half-court offense. Kentucky is better when it gets out and runs in transition in broken-floor opportunities for easy scores. Those easy baskets come in two different situations – turnovers and blocked shots. Kentucky ranks ninth in the country with 6.2 blocked shots per game. K-State players can’t just put their heads down and throw up a shot on the inside, because there’s a good chance it will get blocked and could lead to a fast-break situation for Kentucky. When K-State attacks inside, it must be smart. Use pump fakes, because Kentucky players often get over-eager and will leave the floor.
K-State, which ranks No. 57 nationally with a 1.26 assist-to-turnover ratio, can ill-afford silly turnovers. As I mentioned above, Kentucky isn’t a great half-court team. Kentucky averages 1.12 points per possession, which is solid, but that stat is inflated due to its ability to score in transition and due to the free throws. So if K-State can value every possession, take smart shots and cut down on fouling, it will have a good shot to win.
The fourth key will be hitting shots from the perimeter. Kentucky’s backcourt is big, so it will be difficult at times for K-State’s guards to get shots up over its length. Still, Will Spradling, Marcus Foster and Shane Southwell will need to shoot the ball well from the outside, because points in the paint will come at a premium. That being said, K-State can’t be afraid to attack inside, because it would be beneficial if it can get a couple of Kentucky’s big men in foul trouble.
One of the advantages K-State has in this game is its depth. K-State plays 10 guys 13 minutes or more. Kentucky only plays 7 guys 7 minutes or more per game. And K-State has been off since last Thursday afternoon, while Kentucky just had to play three games in three days, including a physical 61-60 loss to No. 1-ranked Florida on Sunday. K-State will have fresh legs, and Kentucky likely will too by Friday. However, K-State was able to rest for three days while Kentucky has been playing games. Now, while K-State is able to begin practicing and preparing for its opponent, Kentucky had to give its team Monday off.
Another advantage K-State has is its defense against Kentucky’s offense. K-State is one of the best teams in the country at defending the 3, and Kentucky only makes 32.5 percent of its attempts from beyond the arc. Only three Kentucky players have made more than 10 3s this season. Kentucky ranked 12th out of 14 teams in the SEC with just 5.1 made 3s per game this season.
Kentucky isn’t a very good passing team. The Wildcats have a 0.92 assist-to-turnover ratio, ranking No. 242 in the country. In Kentucky’s two losses to Arkansas this season, it combined for 18 assists and 35 turnovers. In its loss to Michigan State early in the season, it had eight assists and 17 turnovers. In its loss to LSU, the Wildcats had only eight assists and 13 turnovers. Kentucky, which has had more turnovers than assists in 18 of its 34 games this season, can play selfish basketball at times, trying to score one-on-one instead of passing the ball within the offense. When Kentucky struggles, it’s often because they don’t play team offense.
Kentucky is a good defensive team, holding teams to 0.99 points per possession and ranks 33rd nationally, holding teams to 40.3 percent. K-State isn’t far behind, ranking No. 55 in the country, limiting teams to 40.8 percent shooting from the floor. However, it’s important to note that the SEC isn’t known for great offenses, while the Big 12 has some of the best offensive teams in the country. So Kentucky’s stats are inflated from playing in a weaker league.
Speaking of inferior competition, Kentucky has only defeated three teams in the NCAA Tournament field (No. 4 seed Louisville, No. 11 seed Tennessee, No. 11 seed Providence). Kentucky is only 3-6 vs. NCAA-tournament teams, with three of those losses to top-ranked Florida. Kentucky is 4-6 vs. top-50 RPI teams, while K-State is 7-8 vs. top-50 RPI teams. K-State is 7-8 vs. teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament and has wins over No. 2 seed Kansas, No. 3 seed Iowa State, No. 5 seed Oklahoma and on down the list. So K-State has been much more battle-tested than Kentucky.
No one is giving K-State a chance, and yes, it’s a mismatch on paper, but keep in mind that there’s a reason Kentucky is an 8 seed. Yes, Kentucky is a blue-blood program. And of the seven guys Kentucky plays regular minutes, six of them were 5-star recruits, while the other was a 4-star. They’re talented, but that talent hasn’t equated to immense success. Out of the seven guys they typically play, five are freshmen and two are sophomores. They’re younger than K-State. Youth leads to inconsistency. And if Kentucky brings that inconsistency on Friday night, K-State can win. Remember, K-State has beaten teams that are better than Kentucky. Just don’t be intimidated by the name on the front of the jersey.