Kansas State won’t look so young going up against the Kentucky kids

Guard Marcus Foster is one of two freshmen to start for K-State this year.

Scott Sewell

No matter what happens Friday when the No. 9-seeded Kansas State Wildcats take on No. 8-seeded Kentucky in the secound round of the NCAA Tournament in St. Louis, Kansas State will not be able to pull out the "youth" card.

True, Kansas State (20-12) starts two freshman, Marcus Foster and Wesley Iwundu, and sometimes gets considerable contributions from another freshman, Nigel Johnson. All season long, we’ve heard from K-State coach Bruce Weber about the growing pains a young team like his can have.

Well, Kentucky certainly can one-up K-State in the youth department. You can’t get any younger than Kentucky, which started five freshman in its 61-60 loss to Florida in Sunday’s SEC title game.

And the first man off the bench for Kentucky is often 7-foot sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein from Olathe, Kan.

"They are a young group that has played awfully well at times," Weber said of Kentucky on Sunday nigh on KCSP (610 AM). "They’ve had some tough stretches, too."

And while the Kentucky (24-10) kiddie corps didn’t exactly live up to preseason expectations — some observers even projected an unbeated season — Kentucky’s youthful group did win three of its last five games, with the only two losses coming against the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, Florida.

Kansas State, meanwhile, dropped its last three games, including a first-round ouster by Iowa State in the Big 12 tourney.

Weber does believe his troops are battle tested, however, and ready for the challenge of playing Kentucky. Kansas State went 7-8 against top-50 RPI teams this season while Kentucky went 3-5.

"We’ve already played some of the best teams in the country just by playing in our own conference," Weber told the radio station. "We competed hard in the Big 12 Tournament. No one else figured out Iowa State, either, not Kansas or Baylor. Iowa State played great in the tourney."

While Kentucky would appear a difficult opening-round draw, Weber already seems ready to use that to his advantage. Expect Weber to portray his team as the huge underdog all week.

"Hey, we’re not supposed to beat Kentucky," Weber said. "You can already hear that all over the TV."

Actually, Kansas State has never beaten Kentucky, not in eight tries all-time. The last time the two teams met was in 2008 when Kentucky won, 74-72.

Perhaps the most memorable meeting between the two teams came in the 1951 national title game — K-State’s only trip to the finals in school history. Kentucky won that meeting, 54-50.

But Weber hopes his team will be undaunted by the aura and tradition of Kentucky basketball.

"I hope our guys have some butterflies before the game," he said. "But then, I hope we just settle down and play our game. For us, it’s always about the little things, showing urgency on each possession, going after loose balls.

"You know, we lost to Iowa State and people want to talk about that last possession with Shane (Southwell) and the turnover but it’s really more about all the other possessions where you don’t get a good shot or commit a turnover. They all add up. So, when we’re successful, we take care of all the little things, winning the 50-50 balls and that sort of thing."

If Kansas State’s seeding and first-round draw wasn’t tough enough, K-State likely would have to try to get by unbeaten Wichita State in the next round.

And the fact that three Kansas teams are all playing in St. Louis this week wasn’t lost on Weber.

"Our governor can watch all three teams in one place now," Weber said. "It’s been a great year for basketball in the state of Kansas. I don’t think I’ve ever seen three teams (from the same state) playing in the same place in the tournament."

You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter (@jflanagankc) or email him at jeffreyflanagan6@gmail.com.