Kansas State’s journey to California was not easy. The Wildcats traveled more than 3,000 miles and three time zones and won a game in the NCAA Tournament’s First Four to get here.
A sightseeing trip this is not. Between flights to and from Ohio, practices in junior-college gyms and scouting meetings at hotels, their travel itinerary has featured everything but relaxation time.
Still, it’s not the most hectic schedule this team has endured.
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Two games in four days … one in the Rust Belt … one on the West Coast … no stop at home. Sounds like a NBA schedule. But that’s nothing compared to what K-State faced last summer when it traveled to Italy and Switzerland for a string of exhibition games.
“We were part of Delta’s computer crash,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said, thinking back to the overseas trip. “We sat in the Kansas City airport all day. We sat in the Atlanta airport all day. We had a game scheduled in basically 48 hours.”
When the jet-lagged Wildcats finally landed in Europe, the team they were scheduled to play asked if they wanted to cancel. Not only did Weber say no, he wedged in a tour of the Roman Coliseum before tipoff.
K-State players walked straight off the bus and onto the court. They didn’t even have time to warm up. That showed over the next two hours, as they lost to LCC International University 82-75. To put the defeat in perspective, Missouri, which won eight games this season, beat LCC 80-68 a week earlier.
“Our guys got there half-an-hour before the game and some of them fell asleep while they were playing,” Weber said. “We were so bad and we lost. But I was trying to convince them it’s all about mental toughness, fighting through things like that. Then they had to get on a bus and play a game the next day in another city.
“With all that stuff and then going through our league, I hope it adds up to us being prepared.”
The No. 11 seed Wildcats will take their chances against No. 6 seed Cincinnati at 6:27 p.m. Friday at Golden 1 Center.
Though their path to the first round of the tournament was more arduous than most, they did benefit from a rare two days of rest between their games in Dayton and Sacramento. The Wildcats are the first team to play in the First Four on Tuesday and not have to play again on Thursday.
Perhaps that will help K-State as it tries to become the next team to do damage in the main bracket after winning a play-in game.
At least one First Four team has gone on to win a game in the NCAA Tournament since 2011. VCU reached the Final Four that year. South Florida, Dayton and Wichita State moved on to the round of 32, while La Salle and Tennessee made the Sweet 16.
What makes K-State’s path down the bracket more challenging is the matchup it faces against Cincinnati.
The Bearcats (29-5) play a much different style than Wake Forest, the team K-State outdueled 95-88 on Tuesday.
The Demon Deacons are one of the nation’s most up-tempo teams. They rank sixth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and 57th nationally in pace.
Cincinnati plays a much different style, ranking 327th nationally in adjusted tempo. This is a team that values defense, allowing an average of 60.8 points – the polar opposite of Wake Forest.
“It’s going to be a little tougher to score on Friday,” Weber said. “They are really good defensively. We are going to have to earn every basket.”
Kyle Washington, a 6-foot-9 junior forward, sets the tone for Cincinnati on defense. He has blocked 42 shots while averaging 13.1 points and 6.9 rebounds. But he has received plenty of help, including 43 steals and 40 blocks from guard Jacob Evans, as well as 44 steals from Kevin Johnson and 41 more from Troy Caupain.
The Bearcats try to make everything difficult for the opposition.
Vegas odds have set the over/under at 130.5 points. Statistics guru Ken Pomeroy favors the Bearcats by a projected score of 65-62. In Big 12 terms, think West Virginia more than Iowa State.
“We know they’re a tough, physical team,” senior wing Wesley Iwundu said. “They’re just like any other team in this tournament. It’s going to be a good challenge. You have got to bring your game, once again. It’s that way night in, night out right now.”
Every part of the NCAA Tournament offers a new test.
K-State’s next one won’t be easy. At least it doesn’t involve a trip overseas.
“We’re ready for any challenge that comes our way,” Iwundu said. “It will be a pretty good game.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett