Only one Wildcat team will advance to the third round of the NCAA Tournament in St. Louis, Mo. after Friday night.
The 8-seed Kentucky Wildcats (24-10) take on the 9-seed Kansas State University Wildcats (20-12) on Friday in a Midwest region showdown.
The Kentucky basketball team will look to ride the momentum of an admirable performance in the SEC and a one-point defeat against top-ranked Florida in the SEC Tournament Championship game.
K-State appears to be limping gingerly into the NCAA Tournament, having lost three in a row and five of the past seven.
However, just like in professional wrestling, a limp can be deceiving. K-State has struggled recently, but for good reason.
The same good reason they are not only in the tournament despite having lost 12 games, but are the ninth-seed in the region.
K-State has the advantage/burden of playing against some of the top teams in the country in the Big-12 Conference.
Kansas State nearly beat Baylor University on March 8, falling by two points.
K-State also defeated two current AP-Top 10 teams, Kansas and Iowa State.
This will not be a typical early-round NCAA Tournament matchup for Kentucky, a program that usually receives a seed in the top five and was predicted to be the best team in the entire nation prior to the season.
Kentucky certainly has the size advantage in the matchup, but as Hickory High School and Napoleon Bonaparte have proved, those that lack height can still conquer the competition.
7-foot-0 freshman Dakari Johnson/ 7-foot-0 sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein v. 6-foot-7 junior Thomas Gibson
Gibson leads Kansas State in rebounds at 6.5 per game, but surrendering five inches to Johnson could mean a long night for Gibson.
Kentucky’s sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein is one of the best defensive big men in the country. Cauley-Stein is averaging 2.97 blocks per game and leads the team in steals despite splitting starts with Johnson since SEC play began.
Johnson has been playing passionate basketball as of late. Look for head coach John Calipari to exploit this matchup and the one you are about to read about, early and often.
6-foot-9 freshman Julius Randle v. 6-foot-7 freshman Wesley Iwundu
Iwundu is a solid player with minimal offensive skills who has started 31 of K-State’s 32 games. Like Randle, Iwundu is a freshman.
Unlike Randle, Iwundu averages just 4.3 rebounds per game. Randle led the Southeastern Conference in rebounding this season with 10.5 per game.
Look for Randle to have the most one-on-one opportunities at times since the Michigan State game thanks to improved perimeter shooting from teammates.
Guards 6-foot-6 freshman James Young v. 6-foot-7 senior Shane Southwell
Southwell may or may not start this game but will play the majority of the minutes at the small forward/guard position.
Southwell averages 9.8 points per game and fires up three-pointers often with little success, shooting just 29.7 percent from downtown.
Young leads UK in three-pointers made and attempted. Young is the more skilled player but will naturally lack the senior desire of Southwell.
6-foot-6 freshman Aaron Harrison v. 6-foot-2 freshman Marcus Foster
Harrison will have his hands full guarding fellow freshman Foster. Foster leads K-State in scoring with 15.6 points per game.
Foster shoots the ball with the frequency of Marshall Henderson and connects on three balls 40.4 percent of the time.
Foster has fired up 400 field goals, 196 more than Southwell. Like Harrison and the other UK freshmen, Foster has shown signs of growing pains. Also like Harrison, Foster knows how to put the ball in the basket.
Against Texas on Feb. 8, Foster poured in 34 points. Harrison is UK’s best perimeter defender and will have to prove it on Friday night.
6-foot-6 freshman Andrew Harrison v. 6-foot-2 senior Will Spradling
Spradling is a tough, experienced senior who knows how to handle a team.
This type of player should sound familiar for Harrison, who just recently played against the quintessential point guard of the 2013-2014 season for the third time in the SEC Championship game (Scottie Wilbekin.)
Spradling does not get to the line often (2.2 free throw attempts per game,) but is a passionate player.
Harrison’s inconsistencies have been well-documented this season, but the freshman appears to be “figuring it out” at the right time.
Kansas State has a deeper, more experienced bench led by D.J. and Nigel Johnson and Omari Lawrence.
D.J. Johnson is a powerful 6-foot-9 sophomore forward that plays with great energy and rebounds proficiently.
Nigel Johnson is an athletic freshman guard that can score the ball when given the chance. Nigel scored 17 points in a March 13 loss to Iowa State.
Omari Lawrence is a senior guard that takes few jump shots. Lawrence is a solid backup to Spradling and passes the ball with selflessness.
Kentucky’s bench is led primarily by either Johnson or Cauley-Stein (depending on how Coach Cal feels that day) and sophomore forward Alex Poythress.
Poythress is an athletic swingman who is still developing offensive skills and confidence.
In roughly the same number of games as last season, Poythress has taken 74 fewer shots with even less success.
Poythress’ field goal percentage has decreased from 58.1 percent last season to 47.1 percent this season.
Poythress is also playing roughly seven minutes less each game compared to last year.
Despite the decrease in playing time and offensive statistics, Poythress is a crucial part of Kentucky’s rotation and provides highlight-reel, energizing dunks and crucial defense and rebounding off the bench.
Freshman guard Dominique Hawkins receives some playing time for Kentucky and may be used if needed.
Hawkins was not considered to be a part of the “greatest recruiting class in the history of basketball” but has outworked one All-American teammate and plays a significant role for Kentucky.
Calipari also sparingly implements senior guard Jarrod Polson into the game off the bench.
Polson is a good player, but severely lacks confidence and often lets the shot clock dwindle down before passing the ball off to a teammate.
Polson’s presence in the game tends to be calming for the young, easily-frazzled Kentucky, as he has only committed eight turnovers all season.
Kansas State is led by Bruce Weber, who led Illinois to the championship game in 2005.
Kentucky is led by Calipari, who is one of the top three coaches in college basketball.
Both are excellent coaches, but there is a reason Calipari is the second-highest-paid coach in college basketball.
March Madness brings out the best and the worst in teams.
Kentucky is a young squad that relies heavily on five freshmen and two sophomores.
None of these players have ever played in the NCAA Tournament, which brings out a bad quality: underclassmen inexperience.
All seven of these players were high school All-Americans, which brings out a good quality: unheralded talent.