With most of its team coming back from last year’s NCAA regional finals run, Kansas State built up big expectations in the Little Apple.
A midseason funk threatened to ruin it all.
A little tweak of the offense, a kick in the backside from coach Frank Martin and some re-found confidence, the Wildcats regained their mojo and are ready for a run through the bracket.
Back in the polls at No. 21 after a tilt-a-whirl season, Kansas State opens (22-10) the NCAA Tournament as a No. 5 seed against 12th-seeded Utah State (30-3) tonight in the Southeast Regional in Tucson, Ariz. Tipoff is set for approximately 8:57 p.m.
“We’re starting to gel at the perfect time where we have to go on a streak,” Kansas State senior forward Curtis Kelly said Wednesday. “That streak could be big for our program, and I think it’s the perfect time. Now’s the time we’ve finally knocked off all the negative stuff.”
The negative stuff hit right at the start of conference.
Coming off a rout of Savannah State, the Wildcats were 12-3 headed into the Big 12, looking to give rival Kansas a run for the conference title.
Instead, Kansas State ran up five losses in its first seven Big 12 games, making a return trip to the NCAA Tournament look like a pipe dream.
Then Martin saw a light at the end of the, uh, pipe.
Dissatisfied with the way his team was scoring, particularly out of the post, Martin pulled off a midseason alteration of Kansas State’s offense, spreading it out to give his players — particularly senior star Jacob Pullen — more room to operate.
Even in a loss to Colorado on Feb. 12, Martin could see the move was working, verified by the Wildcats’ thrashing of top-ranked Kansas two days later. Kansas State ended up winning its next five games before losing to Colorado in the Big 12 tournament, its confidence and place in the NCAA Tournament restored.
“They did a really good job as a coaching staff to implement that in the middle of the season,” Utah State coach Stew Morrill said. “That’s not easy to do, and that’s taking a big chance when you do that, that it might not work. It’s worked for them.”
The tough part is that the NCAA Tournament selection committee didn’t do the Wildcats any favors in the bracket.
Utah State, led by six seniors, rolled through the regular season to win the WAC by five games and followed that with the conference tournament title.
The Aggies are tenacious, disciplined and multidimensional. They have one of the country’s best — and most patient — post players in WAC player of the year Tai Wesley, steady-and-heady point guard Brockeith Pane and plenty of experience with just three underclassmen on the roster.
In other words, they’re exactly the kind of team bracket prognosticators look for when trying to predict a No. 12 seed bumping off a 5.
“They’ve got grown men,” Martin said. “They’re old. They’ve been through it. They understand. They’ve got a championship culture in their program. They expect to win the games they play, regardless of who the opponent is.”
Utah State is looking for any kind of win in the NCAA Tournament.
The Aggies have been regulars in the bracket, reaching the NCAA Tournament eight of the past 12 years, including three straight. They just can’t seem to win when they get there, losing six straight and 14 of 15 since 1971.
Missouri to take on Cincy
Washington — On the day before Cincinnati’s first NCAA Tournament game in six years, Sean Kilpatrick was in the locker room putting on a show worthy of Saturday night at the improv.
The red-shirt freshman was doing impersonations of teammates and coaches, with such spot-on hilarity that his fellow players were doubled over in uncontrollable laughter. Some of the biggest guffaws came when he began mimicking coach Mick Cronin, strutting up and down an imaginary sideline and gesturing with hands and hips.
“Listen! Do me a favor!” Kilpatrick screamed into the face of senior Larry Davis. “You don’t like it? Get OOOOOOOOOUT!”
It was definitely one of the most entertaining open-to-the-media locker room sessions in NCAA Tournament history, and it helped proved a point Cronin made a few minutes earlier when asked if he was concerned his players were be happy simply to be here.
“They’re happy to be everywhere,” Cronin said. “I have one of the funniest teams on earth. We could win a talent show, for sure.”
The sixth-seeded Bearcats (25-8) open play approximately 8:50 tonight against 11th-seeded Missouri (23-10).
The game should be quite a matchup, pitting Missouri’s furious pace and pressure against a stingy Cincinnati defense that allowed a Big East-low 59.2 points per game.