For the fifth straight year, K-State will participate in the NCAA Tournament. The purple Wildcats are a nine seed in the Midwest bracket, and will face the Kentucky Wildcats in the opening* round.
*Yes, I'm aware it's technically the second round. This is my protest against the NCAA's nonsensical nomenclature.
K-State (20-12, 10-8) limps onto the dance floor on a three-game losing streak. Kentucky (24-10, 12-6) is 3-2 in its last five games, but both losses came to SEC champion and the NCAA Tournament's top seed, the Florida Gators. K-State and Kentucky share only one common opponent on the season, and the teams are a combined 0-3 against those Baylor Bears. Kentucky fell to Baylor in Dallas, 67-62.
Kentucky was swept by Florida this year, and has only one truly good win on the year. That win came on December 28th, 2013, against the the Louisville Cardinals, in Rupp Arena. Other than Florida, Kentucky has not played a team since that day who will play in the NCAA Tournament. SEC Basketball Fever, indeed.
But it's not your schedule, it's how you play against that schedule (just ask Wichita State). Marquee wins are overrated as a selection criteria, and I say that knowing that K-State quite possibly wouldn't be in the field if not for the marquee-wins criteria. So given that, let's take a look at what the objective numbers tell us about this matchup.
Kentucky plays slower than average, while K-State plays at a pace that sloths consider leisurely. Don't expect more than 65 or 66 possessions in this matchup. While Kentucky doesn't play especially fast, it is a top-20 offense by points per possession (1.15 PPP). The Wildcats don't shoot especially well from the field overall (eFG% of 49.7%, 159th nationally), and are poor three-point shooters (32.5%, 259th).
So where do the Wildcats get their offense? They're above average inside the arc (50.1%, 109th) and get to the free throw line at a very high rate (sixth nationally). And they're the second-best team in the nation at rebounding their own misses. Basically, they spread the floor, use their athleticism advantage to penetrate, and either get fouled (even if they only make 68.3% of their free-throw attempts) or rebound their misses for another opportunity. When your top seven contributors go 6'9", three at 6'6", 7'0", 6'8" and 7'0", that's not a bad bet.
Kentucky is also good defensively on a per-possession basis, surrendering only 0.96 PPP (29th). If you can say anything bad about Kentucky defensively, it's that the Wildcats aren't very disruptive. They're 296th nationally in turnover percentage and 317th in steal percentage. Unsurprisingly, given all that height, they're very good at blocking shots (12th nationally in Block%).
With all those giraffes in the lane to block and disrupt shots and the athletes they have at other positions, I'm surprised they don't play more aggressively on the perimeter. In addition to being non-disruptive, Kentucky gives up quite a few three-point attempts (269th). But there's probably a reason they're Baylor on steroids. And when you have the length to disrupt shots as well as they do -- opponents make only 44.0% of their two-point attempts, and only 31.7% of their three-point attempts against Kentucky -- you can live without forcing a lot of steals. I guess. It's not how I'd play, but John Calipari has a national title and millions of dollars and I'm a lawyer in Kansas City.
So how does K-State match up? Not very well, I'm afraid.
K-State is somehow above-average offensively per possession (1.08 PPP, 111th). How their other offensive numbers translate to above-average is beyond me. The purple Wildcats are below average nationally in every offensive category except for offensive-rebounding rate (57th) and free-throw rate (161st). K-State is below average in two-point, three-point and free throw percentage, and they don't protect the ball very well (187th in Turnover%). God help this team if not for Marcus Foster and Sleeveless Will Spradling.
And while the news is better defensively, where K-State is 24th nationally at 0.96 PPP, there are some alarming warning signs. K-State is one of the most foul-prone teams in the country, with an opponent FT Rate of 45.5% (277th). Oh, and remember how Kentucky is good at grabbing shots they miss? K-State is 253rd nationally in opponent Offensive Rebounding Rate. Prepare accordingly, K-State fans. You're not going to like the whistles and you're going to hate the second-chance points for Kentucky.
Let's start with the easy question about how this game concludes: How does Kentucky win this game? Simple. If the blue Wildcats don't take K-State lightly and play hard, they are very likely to move on and face Wichita State on Sunday. Kentucky was the preseason No. 1 team on the strength of a ridiculous recruiting class and, while the recruits didn't translate to regular-season wins, this is still a good and very dangerous team.
Now for the more difficult question: How does K-State win this game?
It starts with Kentucky. While I think marquee wins and bad losses are overrated metrics for evaluating teams, they can be instructive. In SEC play, Kentucky lost to Arkansas twice (22-11, 10-8), LSU (19-13, 9-9), and South Carolina (14-20, 5-13). When Kentucky doesn't come to play, the Wildcats are capable of losing to teams much worse than K-State. The problem with that is this is the NCAA Tournament, and the odds of meeting a disinterested Kentucky team are much lower.
Offensively, K-State needs to keep the ball moving and make Kentucky defend as many passes, screens and cuts as possible. The blue Wildcats rely more on athleticism than fundamentals on the defensive end. K-State can exploit this by catching Kentucky out of position to get open looks. And while that probably means longer possessions, we can't be afraid to shoot early in the shot clock if Kentucky gets out of position and gives up an open look. K-State can't let the ball get stuck on offense.
As with the KU and Texas games in Manhattan, K-State's players need to realize that a pull-up shot from 8-14 feet is probably a higher-percentage look than driving to the rim. Don't go testing Julius Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein at the rim. And Kentucky isn't exactly a high-pace team, so we should be sending three or four to the offensive glass to try and maximize our opportunities.
On the defensive end, for god's sake, box out and rebound. This will be more difficult because K-State will probably have to switch and rotate quite a bit against Kentucky's dribble-drive game. The Wildcats will have to know who their responsibility is for boxing out even after switches and rotations. And if you see two players in purple jumping to block a shot, just assume that a player in blue is going to have an easy putback if the shot misses.
As you can tell, I'm not optimistic about this game. By any reasonable standard, Kentucky should have been a five seed, at worst. I'd take my chances against any of the other eight seeds (Gonzaga, Memphis and Colorado), but I hate this matchup. Let's hope Kentucky's players can't motivate themselves, or are already thinking about ending Wichita State's perfect season.