Some college basketball programs view reaching the NCAA Tournament as ordinary. Not Kansas State.
Though the Wildcats have been a part of college basketball’s biggest event in three of the past four years and were all but assured of earning an at-large berth Sunday, they gathered for the selection show full of nerves.
When they saw they were headed to the East Region as a No. 8 seed — playing No. 9 seed Southern Mississippi in an 11:40 Thursday morning game at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh — they cheered.
“We were all happy,” Martin said. “I hope our fans don’t take for granted how hard it is to be in this tournament. I hope they understand that Washington, Seton Hall, think about Drexel, they won 23 of their last 25 games, and none of those guys get in this tournament. You have to be a special group and fortunate to be invited into this thing.”
K-State proved it belonged in the field by winning 21 games. But nothing felt like a given after losing to Baylor in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament. K-State’s players felt they didn’t play with enough energy and said they wanted a shot at redemption.
It didn’t matter what seed or opponent they drew. They just wanted to play again. Those feelings didn’t change on Sunday. That’s part of the reason why no one seemed to mind a potential matchup with No. 1 seed Syracuse.
Though Martin and his players said they respected the Orange, they insisted their focus is solely on Southern Mississippi at the moment. Beating the Golden Eagles won’t be easy.
“We know what can happen if we slip up and lose,” junior forward Rodney McGruder said. “It could be the end of our season. We’re just putting everything into the practices that are coming up so we know we gave it our all.”
Southern Mississippi finished second in Conference USA, and is coached by Larry Eustachy, who led Iowa State to two Big 12 championships before being fired in 2003.
“When Larry Eustachy coached at a BCS school, his teams were known as the hardest-playing teams in the country. That hasn’t changed,” Martin said. “He’s just at Southern Miss. Maybe they aren’t on TV as much as other schools, but I suspect it’s going to be a hard-playing, hard-rebounding, defensive-minded team.”
Sounds a lot like Kansas State, doesn’t it?
“That’s what makes it a tough game,” McGruder said. “Going against somebody that plays just as hard as you do.”
If K-State defeats Southern Mississippi, then the Wildcats’ attention will turn to Syracuse, 31-2, which won the Big East and was ranked No. 1 for part of the season.
The Orange, located closer to Pittsburgh than K-State, will likely play with a crowd advantage. But several K-State players have family on the east coast. Jamar Samuels, Jordan Henriquez and McGruder said they will be playing in front of friendly faces.
“There is going to be a lot of purple in the stands,” Samuels said.
Regardless, they would welcome a game against a traditional power.
“Going against a No. 1 seed is just like playing any other team in our conference,” Henriquez said. “It’s just a great feeling and another great opportunity in front of us.”
If K-State wins two games in Pittsburgh, it would advance to the regional semifinals in Boston. Other teams it could play in the East Regional include Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, Florida State and Ohio State.
They are all teams that are accustomed to playing in the NCAA Tournament. K-State is no different. The Wildcats might have been the most excited of the bunch on Sunday, though.
“I’m comfortable with the fact that our kids are great and that our guys will prepare the right way,” Martin said, “and I’m ecstatic about the opportunity that has been afforded to us. Never take it for granted.”