It's a Big 12 vs. SEC Wildcat clash in Atlanta with a spot in the Elite Eight on the line
No one could have predicted the bracket-busting carnage that enveloped the South Region in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. None of the top four seeds in the region reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in tournament history. It opened the door for Kansas State and Kentucky to unexpectedly survive into the second weekend.
Fifth-seeded Kentucky sports a roster peppered with future NBA players. But the Wildcats (26-10) were a popular 12-over-5 upset pick after suffering a four-game losing streak during SEC play. Kentucky has since recovered to win nine of its last 10 games and has topped 80 points six times during that stretch.
Ninth-seeded Kansas State reached the second weekend for the first time since 2010. The Wildcats (24-11) got to this point on the back of a tough defense. They have allowed 51.0 points in their first two NCAA Tournament games while limiting opponents to 32.2 percent shooting. Kansas State last reached the Elite Eight in 2010.
Kentucky is 2-0 against Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament, with a 56-49 Round of 64 win in 2014 and a 68-58 victory in the 1951 national championship Game.
South Region: No. 9 Kansas State Wildcats (24-11) vs. No. 5 Kentucky Wildcats (26-10)
Time: 9:37 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Where: Philips Arena (Atlanta)
Keys for Kansas State
Getting Dean Wade back on the court is absolutely critical for the Wildcats. The 6-foot-8 forward has been sidelined with a foot injury for the last three games and Kansas State needs him on the court to combat Kentucky's interior size. Utah transfer Makol Mawien has been a strong defender in Wade's absence, but the 6-foot-9 forward also is prone to foul trouble and is limited in his offensive impact.
Wade is both the leading scorer (16.5 ppg) and top rebounder (6.3 rpg) for Kansas State. If he is at 100 percent, it can take some pressure off Barry Brown (16.1 ppg) and Xavier Sneed (10.1) in terms of generating offense. Wade also will be counted on to shadow Kevin Knox, a 6-foot-9 freshman forward, who is arguably Kentucky’s best all-around player. Knox averages 15.6 points and 5.3 rebounds and is a true inside-out threat.
Kansas State needs to take care of the ball better than it did against UMBC. The Retrievers’ prolonged shooting droughts ultimately saved the Wildcats from paying dearly for committing 18 turnovers. To its credit, Kansas State also forced 17 UMBC miscues. But the Wildcats can't count on doing that against a Kentucky team that is averaging 9.6 turnovers per game in the postseason.
Keys for Kentucky
One reason why Kentucky is back in the Sweet 16 is the simple fact that the Wildcats have cranked up their offense a few degrees. Kentucky doesn't make a habit of wasting possessions and that trend must continue against an offensively-challenged Kansas State team. The SEC Wildcats are shooting 47.3 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from long distance this season. During its five-game postseason winning streak, Kentucky is shooting a blistering 52.2 percent from the field.
Shutting down the perimeter will go a long way to keeping Kentucky on track for an Elite Eight berth. The Wildcats are naturals in defending the paint and pulling down a lion's share of rebounds. They need to keep Kansas State from going wild outside. UMBC offered a good template for locking down the Big 12 Wildcats behind the arc, limiting them to just 1-of-12 shooting from 3-point range.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been a catalyst for NCAA Tournament success so far, averaging 23 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.5 assists in wins over Davidson and Buffalo. If Gilgeous-Alexander can control the tempo and attack the rim the way he did in those games, Kansas State will have a tough time finding a way to counteract it.
Kentucky is 6-0 in Sweet 16 games under John Calipari. The average margin of victory for the Wildcats in those contests is 14.5 points. There's no reason to suggest they can't make it 7-0 on Thursday. Kansas State is a good defensive team, but Kentucky's offense is operating on an almost superhuman level at the moment. The SEC Wildcats have too much interior size and too many versatile offensive weapons for the Big 12 Wildcats to slow them down.
Prediction: Kentucky 78, Kansas State 67
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
(Top photo courtesy of @KentuckyMBB)