Kentucky Wildcats Face Kansas State Wildcats in Sunday's NCAA Tournament Showdown
Updated: Mar 19
By Jamie H. Vaught
GREENSBORO, N.C. – The Wildcats, now 22-11, said they are having fun.
Well, they should. They are winning and playing much better basketball in the past several weeks, including key SEC victories over NCAA tournament teams Tennessee, Auburn and Arkansas as well as Providence in Friday night’s first round action in the Big Dance.
And No. 6 seed Kentucky hopes to find more happiness Sunday afternoon when the Cats face No. 3 seed Kansas State in a second-round NCAA tourney matchup on CBS (2:40 p.m. ET). If UK wins, it will play the winner of the No. 2 seed Marquette and No. 7 seed Michigan State game in the Sweet Sixteen in New York City.
Coach John Calipari, now in his 14th year at UK, said it is important for the team to relax and enjoy the moment.
“I'm having a ball with this group,” said Calipari during Saturday's NCAA Tournament press conference. “I want them to have a great experience. Don't listen to anybody (who tries) to steal your joy: They've got to do this, he's got to do that, that guy, that means nothing. Just go have fun. Let's see where this goes if we have enjoyment. If two teams are enjoying the game and playing well, probably who has the ball last wins.”
Calipari also has told the team not to pay attention to the other games in the NCAA Tournament.
“Coach tells us not to watch the games because we don't know who we'll play and we don't -- we're playing our game,” said freshman guard Cason Wallace. “We’ve got to worry about ourselves. Just being loose and free out there once the ball goes for tip-off. So I feel like we are well-prepared, and we'll be ready.”
Freshman Chris Livingston concurred. “Coach tried to emphasize not really watching any other games and worrying about what's going on elsewhere, and just worrying about what we've got to handle and what's in front of us.
“I think we did a really good job of staying locked in, not being nervous and playing free. Now that we have that one game under our belt, I think it's going to be good for us to carry that into the next game."
Added All-American Oscar Tshiebwe, “He just make us to stay away from watching those games because sometimes by you watching a game, you start getting nervous. He just creates a fun game for ourselves. Make us stay away from phones. Just stay focused, not let what's happening outside affect us. So we're going to come in and fight and get, like, a lot of sleep because our body needs to rest to be ready for the game.”
Calipari said, “We've got a team of good players, terrific guys that care about one another.”
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Moments after Kansas State’s first round win over Montana State Friday night, Coach Jerome Tang opened his press conference with the following statement:
“I would like to thank my Lord and Savior for this opportunity that He has given me, the many blessings that He has placed on my life. I know my profession is coaching, but my calling and passion is ministry, and I love being able to spend time around these young men and just help them to grow and become great husbands, become great fathers and leaders in their community. It’s so much fun to do it through the game of basketball.”
Tang recently was named the Big 12 Coach of the Year in his first year at Kansas State after 19 years at Baylor where he was an assistant.
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On Tshiebwe, Tang said, “We recruited him (at Baylor) really hard when he was coming out of high school, then watched him play for two years and competed against him at West Virginia. So I've seen it up close and personal. He does have that 'it.' Oscar gets double-doubles, and he does that. We will try to make it difficult for him, but guys like that do what they do.”
Providence coach Ed Cooley, whose team dropped to Kentucky Friday night, praised Tshiebwe. “Sometimes you just have an 'it,' ala Dennis Rodman, Ben Wallace. Those guys just have an 'it' for it," he said. "Some guys have an 'it' to score. Some people have an 'it' to pass. He has an incredible 'it,' an elite 'it' to rebound."
Tshiebwe set a school single-game NCAA Tournament record with 25 rebounds against the Friars.
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Remember Kansas State senior Keyontae Johnson, who had not played basketball in nearly two years?
The 6-foot-6 forward was the one who suffered a medical emergency while playing for the Florida Gators in 2020. Johnson, who earned first team Big 12 honors, is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder with an average of 17.7 points and 7.1 rebounds, respectively.
Johnson and Tshiebwe are friends, and they stay in touch.
“He is my boy,” said Tshiebwe of Johnson. “I knew him since high school. When he went through everything, I just reached out to him, and I told him I'm keeping you in my prayers. Just keep praying. Let's just keep trusting in God. God is going to bring you better than you were before. That's how our friendship is good. Reach out sometimes, check up on him once in a while to see how he is doing.”
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On Kansas State, Calipari said, "They have guys that are kind of positionless. Like, you would say is he a 4 or a 3? Is he a 5? What is he?"
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime sports columnist in Kentucky, is the author of six books about UK basketball, including newly-released "Forever Crazy About the Cats: An Improbable Journey of a Kentucky Sportswriter Overcoming Adversity." He is also the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com Magazine, and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via email at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.