ST. LOUIS (AP) — The kids from Kentucky began the season No. 1. They sure think they can end it that way.
After a wild roller-coaster ride for one of the most heralded recruiting classes in history, the Wildcats begin their NCAA tournament as the No. 8 seed against No. 9 seed Kansas State on Friday night in St. Louis. The winner will face top-ranked Wichita State or No. 16 seed Cal Poly.
Asked if the preseason ranking was unfair for a team starting five freshmen, Kentucky coach John Calipari scoffed. There are always expectations for the blue-bloods from the Bluegrass State.
"You're at Kentucky. That's part of it," Calipari said. "Some of it was, you know, you build it up so high it gives you a chance to start whacking at it. But that's part of it.
"And again, they have handled it great," he said, "and I'm proud of them."
Only three players from Kentucky have played in the NCAA tournament — junior Brian Long and seniors Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson — and they've done it for a combined 10 minutes. That makes the Wildcats (24-10), runners-up in the SEC tournament, the youngest team in this year's field.
Not that it means much. The youngest teams in the past two tournaments have been Michigan, the runner-up to Louisville a year ago, and Kentucky, which beat Kansas for the title in 2012.
"It's a chance for us to validate what people said we could do at the beginning of the year," said Aaron Harrison, one of those starting freshmen. "We became much better in the last month or so, especially in the last two weeks. It's a new season, we get another opportunity to play, and just go out there and have fun and see what we can do."
Kansas State (20-12) has something to prove, too.
Nobody expected much of the Wildcats from the Little Apple this season. They lost most of their best players from last year's NCAA tournament team, and they're starting a pair of freshmen, too.
And it seems that nobody thinks they have a chance against Kentucky, either.
"I feel like we've been overlooked. I watch TV, we all watch TV, and we hear what people are saying," said Kansas State forward Thomas Gipson. "We're not going to back down."
Will Spradling shrugged when he was asked why nobody seems to be giving Kansas State a shot.
"I mean, obviously Kentucky has the name and the tradition," he said. "But they have about the same record we have, and I feel like we had a tougher schedule, and play in a tougher league."