SAN JOSE, Calif. — Defense will be the name of the game once again for the Kansas State Wildcats (25-8, 14-4 Big 12) in this year's NCAA tournament. The team is a 4-seed and is set to face 13-seed UC Irvine (30-5, 13-2 Big West) in the round of 64 game in San Jose, California, on Friday.
Both teams have only played each other once in their history. The Wildcats beat the Anteaters 71-49 at Bramlage Coliseum on Nov. 17, 2017.
However, this year's UC Irvine team is much better and bigger. Additionally, K-State won't have the assistance of senior forward Dean Wade, who is most likely lost for the entire tournament due to a right foot injury. Wade was K-State's second-leading scorer averaging 12.9 points per game in 25 games this season.
The loss of offensive production for the Wildcats will almost certainly mean this team will have to buckle down on defense once again to try and compensate for that loss.
"Well, you lose Dean, you lose, and again this year, you're talking your best rebounder, your best passer, one of your best three point shooters, one of your best threats to spread defenses," K-State head coach Bruce Weber said. "So, you know, I challenged them last year to be one of the best defensive teams in the tournament. And, they bought into it. And, that's how we played. And, we grinded it out and fought them."
UC Irvine won the Big West Conference tournament title, defeating Cal State Fullerton 92-64. The team averages 72.9 points per game all while only allowing 63.3 points per game. The K-State players understand that taking away the Anteaters' scoring won't be an easy task.
"Our defense [was key]," K-State redshirt sophomore guard Cartier Diarra said of their defensive effort against UC Irvine during last year's game. "We were hands up, active on everything, making everything tough for them, no easy catches and just, you know, denying it. They're really good at running their stuff. You know, when you let them execute, they're really hard to guard.
"You know, they have really good bigs. And, when the see you low, it's really tough to defend that. And, they're talented down there. [They give you] all types of [shots]. Left, hook shots, fadeaway jumpers. So, you know, we respect them. They're really talented. But, if we take away those and play K-State men's basketball, we can make it tough for them and give us an opportunity to win."
Wyatt Thompson is the voice of K-State men's basketball. It was certainly hard for him to deny UC Irvine's talent and it was evident during their early morning practice session on the SAP Center floor. Thompson was scouting the team and watching them to get ready for his radio broadcast Friday afternoon.
"I love their coach [Russell Turner]. He's been with [retired Wake Forest men's basketball coach] Dave Odom, [and current Stanford head coach] Mike Montgomery. And obviously, he knows toughness. This is a really big and physical basketball team and can rebound the ball," Thompson said. "That is not necessarily Kansas State's strength. What is K-State's strength against this group, I think their defense will carry them. And, they've gotta make some shots."