Facing taller and bigger opponents is nothing new for Kansas State, but this feels different.
This is Kentucky, a team made up of oversized guards and mammoth forwards. This is a group that ranks fifth nationally in rebounding and ninth in blocked shots. This is coach John Calipari and a legion of future NBA players.
No matter how well Big 12 teams such as Kansas and Baylor, which feature big frontcourts, tested K-State during the regular season, a NCAA Tournament clash with No. 8-seed Kentucky on Friday could be a whole new challenge.
Consider this: Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein are both 7-footers, and Calipari has recently played them together. That means Kentucky’s small lineup features Julius Randle, a 6-foot-9 big that averages 15 points and 10.5 rebounds, at power forward.
“It’s a different kind of thing,” Cauley-Stein said. “We can play two 7-footers at the same time. Dakari can hold down the paint and I can guard positions one through five. It gives us two shot-blockers and helps on rebounding. But we are good with other lineups, too.”
Bruce Weber knew K-State’s frontcourt was in for a battle the moment he saw the bracket.
It might take something new, or special, in the strategy department for K-State to advance.
“It starts with Randle,” Weber said. “You have got a big-body guy who can do a lot of things, and I have watched him through high school. They have got some size and they have athletes, but we are going to have to guard them.
“Randle is a tough matchup. Any team that has a four-man who can do some things has made it tough on us. Maybe we can exploit some other things, and maybe he does not get the ball quite as much.”
One of those things could be using forwards Thomas Gipson and D.J. Johnson — the team’s two tallest players — together.
Normally, K-State uses Gipson as a starter and brings Johnson in off the bench. One of them patrols the post solo while a guard-heavy lineup spreads the floor around them. If Shane Southwell or Wesley Iwundu pass the ball well and make outside shots, which should be plentiful against a bigger but slower lineup, it spreads defenses out and forces opposing bigs to leave the paint.
The strategy has worked more than it has missed.
“I really haven’t found any difficulty playing against big teams,” Johnson said. “Baylor has a 6-foot-10 guy and a 7-footer. It can be easier because I weigh more than them and I can use my physicality to put them on the rim in addition to my size.”
But don’t be shocked if K-State tries to go big instead of small, at least for a little while.
Though Gipson (6-7) and Johnson (6-9) have rarely played together, K-State’s version of a Twin Towers lineup has produced positive results.
When they played together against Texas, K-State rolled to a 74-57 victory. Gipson had three points and 11 rebounds, while Johnson finished with eight points and two rebounds.
Two days later, K-State stuck with them and beat Kansas 85-82 in overtime. Gipson had nine points and three rebounds, while Johnson had nine points and four rebounds. They both scored effortlessly off pick-and-rolls.
“Me and Thomas rebound together,” Johnson said. “Our help-side defense is a lot better when we are both in. He is there to take charges and I am there to rile guys up.”
Gipson added: “We have an advantage in rebounding. We can switch a lot more if me and D.J. are playing at the same time. I like playing with D.J. I know D.J. has my back and he knows I have his.”
There is always a certain intrigue involved when a giant team going up against a smaller one. On paper, the bigger team should dominate. In reality, the smaller team can create just as many mismatches.
“You say smaller, but they’re physical. They play a physical game,” Calipari said. “Their guard play, you know, they’re not going to beat themselves. They run good stuff. And defensively, they’re coming at you. They’re not giving up an inch. They’re an outstanding team and a very tough game for anybody.”
Still, it always seems tougher for the little guys. Sometimes you have to go big.
“I hope that’s what we do,” Johnson said. “I like it when me and Thomas are in there together. When the big fellas are in, it is time to play big-boy ball.”