Kansas State’s tiny locker room was filled with souvenir hunters following a 95-88 victory over Wake Forest in the First Four on Tuesday night.
They weren’t fans seeking autographs or family members asking for pictures. The people looking for keepsakes were the Wildcats themselves.
Xavier Sneed grabbed a giant K-State cutout and refused to let it go. Dean Wade asked if he could take a March Madness sign. Kamau Stokes removed the nameplate from his locker and clutched it in his right hand.
“I don’t know if we are allowed to take this stuff,” associate head coach Chris Lowery joked as he watched the scene unfold. “But we’re taking it. Looks like it’s all coming with us.”
The Wildcats hope they can bring momentum with them, too.
K-State is playing its best basketball. It won three of its final four games to claim the final at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament and then it out-dueled fellow No. 11-seed Wake Forest with one of its best shooting performances of the year for a spot on the main bracket and a first-round game against No. 6-seed Cincinnati on Friday in Sacramento, Calif.
It remains to be seen whether a trip to Dayton for a play-in game will help in the long run, but, for now, the Wildcats are glad they got to play an extra game.
“Sitting and waiting for the first round wouldn’t have been good for us,” senior guard Carlbe Ervin said. “Playing and focusing in, getting locked in with a play-in game helped us, because we are a young team and now we know what March Madness feels like. We showed how much character we have and it will help us prepare for the next game.”
The First Four was the first taste of the NCAA Tournament for the majority of K-State’s roster. Seniors Wesley Iwundu and D.J. Johnson were part of the bracket in 2014, but the Wildcats missed the postseason entirely the past two seasons.
They got to play a true elimination game on Tuesday. Nothing should surprise them on Friday.
“We definitely proved that we belong here in this tournament,” Stokes said after hitting five three-pointers and scoring 22 points, “but we have a lot more work to do to prove we really belong here. We have got to handle business against Cincinnati and keep playing with the same win-or-go-home mentality we had in this play-in game.”
K-State is trying to follow the lead of former teams that have won in the First Four and gone on to achieve bigger things.
Since the play-in games expanded to include eight teams in 2011, at least one squad has gone on to win a game in the main bracket. VCU advanced all the way to the Final Four that year. South Florida, Dayton and Wichita State have all moved on to the round of 32, while Tennessee made the Sweet 16 in 2014.
And who could forget La Salle, the team that stunned K-State in the first round three years ago in Kansas City’s Sprint Center?
“It was an advantage (for them),” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “We got beat by La Salle, who came through here, and we were Big 12 champs. They came to Kansas City. You would think everything was on our side and they just, they shot lights out. I’m telling (my team) it’s an advantage.”
It can be, but it’s not a given.
Weber hasn’t gotten much sleep since K-State lost in the Big 12 Tournament, and he didn’t plan to sleep Tuesday night. Not with a difficult opponent that plays a much different style than Wake Forest to prepare for and a morning flight to Sacramento to catch. That kind of travel could hurt some teams.
But the Wildcats don’t seem bothered. They will be helped by two days of rest leading up to their next game. Teams usually only get one day off in between games, and they spend it traveling.
“We will have plenty of time to rest later,” Weber joked.
In some ways, beating Wake Forest could have energized players.
“I don’t like missing class, but I definitely prefer this schedule to sitting at home,” Johnson said. “It is nice to get away. Who doesn’t want to play more games?”
If it means collecting souvenirs and building momentum, these Wildcats are all for it.
“It was good for us to be on our feet already,” Iwundu said after scoring 24 points. “We would have been sitting around. It’s good to get our bodies flowing and ready for the next game. After a good two days of rest we will be back at it.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett
Kansas State vs. Cincinnati
- When: 6:27 p.m. Friday
- Where: Golden 1 Center, Sacramento, Calif.
- Records: KSU 21-13, UC 29-5
- TV/radio: truTV; WHB (810 AM)