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Numbers underscore K-State’s physical reputation

Kentucky won’t be facing a team intimidated by the Wildcats’ talent, size or the name on the front of their jersey on Friday.

In fact, Kansas State is itching for a shot at UK.

“My face just lit up,” forward Shane Southwell said after the Selection Show on Sunday.

Southwell and his teammates know the names and faces of UK’s players. Having watched Kentucky for much of the season on television, they even had an idea of how their second-round opponents would play before watching film.

“I was ecstatic because I love playing against great teams and great players,” Southwell said. “When you are a high school player, you think about certain programs. You thing about Kentucky, Duke and Kansas, honestly, and it would be a great opportunity to beat a team of that nature.”

That confidence doesn’t come out of nowhere. Though the ninth-seeded Wildcats (20-12) have lost three in a row heading into a matchup with eight seed Kentucky (24-10) at approximately 9:40 p.m. ET on Friday, they come from a league viewed by many as the best in the nation.

Kentucky’s length could present an undersized by physical Kansas State team problems. (photo by Chris Reynolds)

Seven of the Big 12’s 10 teams reached the NCAA Tournament, all of them seeded ninth or better. Kansas State has wins over five of them, including Kansas. The Wildcats also handed Iowa State — one of the hottest teams in the country — a loss on March 1.

“Our league, I hope, has prepared us for this, a talented team,” Kansas State head coach Bruce Weber said of UK. “They’ve got athletes. I think they get to the boards. They’ve got some inside presence.”

UK’s inside presence comes in the form of 7-footers Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein, as well as Julius Randle and Alex Poythress. Randle and Poythress — standing 6-foot-9 and 6-8, respectively — are taller than any Kansas State player who averages more than 15 minutes per game.

Though Kansas State’s two starting post players — Southwell and Thomas Gipson — are just 6-7, UK head coach John Calipari knows they’ll present a challenge with their strength. Gipson especially, at 265 pounds, will be a handful.

“I watched some tape and I’ll tell you what: They’re veteran, physical; great defensively; motion offense — different kinds of motion; and then try to beat you on the dribble and they’re physical,” John Calipari said.

Coach Cal and his staff are spending much of the week breaking down tape of their opponent to learn even more. We’re not equipped to do that here, but we can take a closer look at how the two sets of Wildcats match up on paper.

Per usual, we turn to kenpom.com’s advanced statistics to do it.

When Kentucky is on offense

This is a matchup of two units rated in the top 25 nationally in terms of efficiency.

Kansas State’s strength is forcing opponents to take — and more often than not, miss — tough shots. The Wildcats rank 32nd nationally in effective field-goal percentage defense. They are solid inside the arc at 46.0 percent but elite outside of it. Kansas State is allowing opponents to shoot just 29.4 percent from 3-point range, sixth in the country. Given that UK is shooting a below-average 32.5 percent from 3, the Cats could be in trouble if they rely too heavily on the long-range game.

That idea is only reinforced when you look at UK’s strengths on offense and KSU’s weaknesses on defense.

Think about it: Kentucky has had hot streaks and cold streaks shooting the ball and has a pedestrian effective field-goal percentage of 49.7 percent. The Cats have had games where they’ve taken care of the ball exceptionally well and some where they’ve been more careless.

But from the very beginning of the season, there are two things the Cats have always done well: rebound their own misses and get to the foul line.

UK is in the top eight nationally in both offensive-rebounding percentage and free-throw rate, relying on size, athleticism and strength to get the job done. Kansas State, meanwhile, struggles to keep opponents off the offensive glass and foul line. The Wildcats are 254th in defensive-rebounding percentage (.670) and 277th in defensive free-throw rate (45.5).

Odds are UK won’t shoot a great percentage against a stout Kansas State defense. Kentucky, however, should be able to find offensive success if the Cats stay in attack mode, play through bumps against a physical opponent and pound the offensive boards as they have all year.

When Kentucky is on defense

The purple-clad Wildcats were a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of offensive efficiency in the rugged Big 12, ranking between 160th and 197th nationally in free-throw rate, turnover percentage and effective field-goal percentage.

Like UK, Kansas State relies on second chances on offense, rebounding 35 percent of its misses (57th nationally). UK has been a slightly better defensive rebounding team than Kansas State (.701 rebounding percentage), but Kansas State will still surely see an opportunity on the offensive glass given UK’s solid effective field-goal percentage defense (.450, 22nd nationally).

Regardless, expect some long offensive possessions for Kansas State. The Wildcats’ average possession lasts 18.6 seconds, longer than all but 102 teams in the NCAA. Kentucky, meanwhile, forces its opponents into possessions that last 18.4 seconds on average, longer than all but 101 teams in the NCAA.

Interestingly and likely a function of that offensive patience, Kansas State ranks seventh nationally in assist rate, with 63.5 percent of the Wildcats’ field goals coming off of assists. By contrast, UK allows assists infrequently, with only 44.7 percent of opponents’ baskets being assisted. If UK can force Kansas State to try to create one-on-one at the end of the shot clock, Kentucky will probably be in good shape on defense.

If it does come to the end of the shot clock, the ball will more than likely be in the hands of Marcus Foster, the star freshman who made second team All-Big 12. The 6-2 guard leads Kansas State in scoring at 15.4 points per game.

“Foster’s outstanding,” Calipari said. “I mean, makes big shots, not afraid to score it.”

He has attempted 400 of Kansas State’s 1,787 shots on the season. Going a step further, Foster shoots 31.2 percent of his team’s shots when he’s on the floor, 57th among all players in the country. By comparison, no Kentucky player shoots more than 25.7 percent of the Cats’ shots when he’s on the floor.

Style of play

These are two teams that will run when opportunities present themselves, but Friday should not be an especially fast-paced game. Kansas State is 230th nationally in adjusted tempo, while UK is 195th.

Given the strengths of the two teams on the offensive glass and their solid first-shot defense, the outcome could come down to which team is more effective in terms of defensive rebounding. Given Kansas State’s physicality and propensity for fouling, UK also figures to benefit if the officials call a tight game.

Whether the whistles are blowing or not, Kentucky will need to be disciplined and focused to make it past Kansas State.

“All I can tell you is that they’re really physical, and they play a motion offense, which is somewhat structured, but it’s pass, pass, pass, pass, pass and drive, so you’ve got to be aware of where the ball is,” Calipari said. “You can’t just start running around, and freshmen, we just sometimes run around.”

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you’ll enjoy even more coverage than normal.