Kansas State men’s basketball players expected to make the NCAA Tournament on Friday. Their confidence remained strong on Saturday. Then Sunday arrived and all of a sudden nerves took over.
When the selection show reached its midpoint and the Wildcats still hadn’t been shown on the bracket, doubt and fear began to creep into their minds.
“It was awfully nervous waiting and waiting,” senior guard Carlbe Ervin said. “Honestly, I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Was the committee going to snub them after going 20-13, finishing sixth in the Big 12 and upsetting Baylor in the conference tournament?
The answer: No. K-State is headed back to the NCAA Tournament for the 29th time and the first time since 2014. It will start in Dayton, Ohio as a No. 11 seed against fellow No. 11 seed Wake Forest. The First Four game will start around 8:10 p.m. Tuesday on truTV. A victory will send the Wildcats to Sacramento, Calif., for a 6:27 p.m. Friday tip against No. 6 seed Cincinnati, also on truTV.
Cheers and high-fives filled the room at K-State’s private watch party.
“I was probably the happiest guy in the room,” senior wing Wesley Iwundu said. “It is a big-time accomplishment for me, for my teammates, for the seniors just to go out on this note. We aren’t done yet, but we are happy.”
K-State is the first Big 12 team to play in the First Four. As one of the final teams selected, its NCAA Tournament path is more difficult than the 60 teams placed in the main bracket.
But that hardly mattered to anyone wearing purple on Sunday.
“We are in,” senior Wesley Iwundu said. “What more can you ask for? Any way you put it, we are in the NCAA Tournament. We have a chance just like every other team does in this tournament to go out and win a championship. You can’t ask for nothing more. It’s in our face now. We just have to go take it.”
K-State’s first test comes against Wake Forest, which went 19-13 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Demon Deacons are coached by former Kansas star Danny Manning.
The Wildcats said they were familiar with Wake Forest’s roster, having watched them play several times this season. They have loads of respect for forward John Collins, who averages 18.9 points and 9.8 rebounds.
Early Vegas odds favor K-State by 1.
K-State basketball coach Bruce Weber expected this type of scenario. He is looking forward to the opportunity after watching past teams win in Dayton and go on to bigger things. VCU reached the Final Four after starting in the First Four. LaSalle started in the First Four and then upset K-State in the first round two days later in 2013 at the Sprint Center.
“I told the kids three weeks ago,” Weber said, “when we were just hoping to survive and get in the tournament that even if you just get in that First Four if you can get by that first game it can give you an advantage.”
The travel schedule will be hectic getting there, though.
“We don’t even know when we are leaving and we play Tuesday night,” Weber said.
On the plus side, players joked, they won’t have to go to classes.
After missing the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back years, they are happy to be dancing again, even if they have to start in Dayton.
“I definitely didn’t want to leave this place without getting back to the tournament,” senior forward D.J. Johnson said. “It is just something I wanted to give back to the fans and my teammates who worked really hard for it.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett
K-State vs. Wake Forest
What: NCAA Tournament First Four game, winner advances to the South Region first round as the No. 11 seed
When/where: About 8:10 p.m. Tuesday at UD Arena, Dayton, Ohio.
If the Wildcats win: They’ll face No. 6 seed Cincinnati at 6:27 p.m. Friday in Sacramento, Calif. (truTV)
Three things about Wake Forest
▪ This is Danny Manning’s third season at Wake Forest. He only won 24 games total in his first two years, but guided the Demon Deacons to a 19-13 record this season. Manning is a former Kansas star player and assistant coach.
▪ John Collins is one of the nation’s top forwards. The 6-foot-10 sophomore averages 18.9 points and 9.8 rebounds.
▪ Much like K-State, Wake Forest had to finish on a hot streak to reach the NCAA Tournament. It beat Pittsburgh, Louisville, Virginia Tech and then Boston College before bowing out of the ACC Tournament.