It’s the day before the NCAA tournament.
K-State has been in this spot before. In fact, the Wildcats have earned trips to the tournament the last three seasons, but this year, this time around — it feels different. K-State is hosting the first two rounds this year.
The Wildcats’ opponent Friday night will be Lipscomb, a far cry in name from the sturdy Big 12 foes K-State has been facing, but not in accolades. The Bison enter Friday having won 12 straight matches, claimed the Atlantic Sun tournament crown, and if that wasn’t enough, Lipscomb ranks second in the country in both assists per set and kills per set.
The Bison are no Texas or Kansas, seeded No. 4 and No. 5 in the tournament, respectively, but K-State knows unfamiliarity with the opponent does not equal an advantage. Just look at last year’s first-round loss to Wichita State.
“We have a tremendous respect for them; how they play,” head coach Susie Fritz said. “But my biggest weapon is that I don’t care about (their accomplishments)…. I feel like we have played enough people and seen enough things that there’s little that concerns me. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of surprises.”
No, there likely won’t be. The Wildcats took both the Jayhawks and Longhorns to five sets in regular-season meetings, and aside from KU and Texas, K-State has taken down six other tournament teams: Arizona, Hawaii, Creighton, Iowa State, TCU and Baylor.
And even if Lipscomb isn’t a Big 12 team, this K-State team recognizes the benefits playing against league adversaries can provide on a big stage like the NCAA tournament.
“We’ve had awesome preparation with the teams we’ve played up until this point,” senior outside hitter Brooke Sassin said. “Especially in preseason, and the Big 12, of course. So that’s definitely going to pay off for us.”
The way K-State managed a host seed in the first place, though, was a small surprise for the Wildcats. They jumped five slots from a 19th RPI ranking to the 14th seed — 16 schools are selected as host sites — likely because of K-State’s strength of schedule and the amenities Bramlage Coliseum provides.
Still, K-State found a small amount of amazement in being able to host the first two rounds of the tournament.
“We were surrounded by Powercats, and there was a Powercat on the screen, so it took me a second to realize that was the hosting screen, and we were the 14th seed,” senior middle blocker Katie Reninger said. “So everyone was really excited. A little bit surprised, but in a good way.”
In the way of surprises, freshman Elle Sandbothe got another on Sunday, when she learned Missouri State and Ohio State were the other two squads to come to Manhattan. Her sister Taylor is a star for the Buckeyes.
“We were texting before (the selection show), and we were like, ‘OK, it’s not going to happen. There’s no way,” Sandbothe said. “After the first side of the bracket, now we’re on the same side, so that’s cool. But she was convinced that we were going to go to California. So when we found out that she’s coming to Manhattan, we got so many texts, like ‘OMG, OMG.’ My dad texted the whole family, ‘all right, we’re booking a hotel.’ So exciting, so cool.”
But K-State has business to handle first, a game the Wildcats must win if the Sandbothe sisters are to meet.
“If we don’t win Friday, all that glory is gone,” Sandbothe, who was selected to the Big 12 All-Freshman team, said. “It’s definitely in the back of my head, but at the end of the day, we have a lot of work to do before that.”
It’s a tall task, winning in the NCAA tournament — every game is. But the Wildcats have their own weapons to combat the 22-7 Bison. Senior Katie Brand was named to her third All-Big 12 First Team, five Wildcats average two-plus kills a set and playing in the conference second only to the Big 10 in RPI doesn’t hurt.
“I think our strength of schedule has prepared us for anything we’re going to see in the tournament,” Fritz said. “Experience, in and of itself, is the best preparation you can have, and we’ve got a ton of it.”
Indeed they do. K-State will put it to the test when it hosts Lipscomb Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Bramlage Coliseum.