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K-State to make up for lack of height with physical play

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UK will take on Kansas State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night at the Scottrade Center. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will take on Kansas State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night at the Scottrade Center. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ST. LOUIS -- Kentucky is bigger, stronger, longer.

The narrative suggests Friday's Kentucky-Kansas State second-round matchup in the NCAA Tournament pits a team full of Goliaths vs. a group full of Davids. And to an extent, that's true.

UK boats six players measuring 6-foot-9 or taller, including two 7-footers in Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson. The other Wildcats, the ones from Kansas State, feature just one eligible player who fits the same guidelines, and he - D.J. Johnson - stands only 6-9 and plays just 14.2 minutes per game.

"We hold a pretty good advantage, especially height-wise and athletically," said Julius Randle, who stands at 6-9, 250 pounds. "We have advantages everywhere on the floor. I feel like, as long as we share the ball and play within our roles (we should be fine.)"

But as Kansas State forward Thomas Gipson said earlier in the week, what the purple-clad Wildcats lack in size they make up for in "girth."

"You say 'smaller,' but they're physical," John Calipari said Thursday. "... Defensively, they're coming at you. I mean, they're not giving up an inch. So yes, they may not be 7-foot tall, but there aren't many teams in college basketball 7-foot tall."

Kansas State relies on its bruising play, and no player represents that style more accurately than Gipson, KSU's low-post bull. The junior forward stands just 6-7, but he tips the scales at 265 pounds.

Gipson more than makes up for his height disadvantage by scoring 11.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.

"I feel like he's similar to Jarnell Stokes and Pat Young," Cauley-Stein said. "Those guys were tough to play. (Gipson is) obviously a lot bigger and stronger, but it really hasn't weighed in until I see him."

Cauley-Stein will likely draw some of the assignment on Gipson, and though he has a height advantage on him, Cauley-Stein pointed out that smaller guys generally figure out a way to compensate for their short stature.

Kansas State's solution is to play physical.

"A big body, you can't move 'em like you would other people," Cauley-Stein said. "You got to make sure when you're rebounding you stay on his body and use your length. Like you said, he's 6-7. I feel like I can use my length against him and kind of take away some of those (rebounds) by sitting on his body and using my length."

Gipson said it's accurate to call his team a group of guys who make up for their lack of height by putting some muscle on the opposition.

"We want to play tough and play hard," he said. "... We want to be the gritty team that does all the things to help us win."

To get to 20 wins this season and make the NCAA Tournament, obviously Kansas State has found a way to win against bigger and longer teams. The Wildcats from Manhattan, Kan., have outrebounded their opponents this season and gone 7-8 vs. the RPI top 50.

Against the NCAA Tournament field Kansas State is 7-8. By comparison, UK is just 3-6 against the field.

"We faced big teams in our league," K-State head coach Bruce Weber said. "With Kansas a couple of times. Texas has the big bodies and length. Gonzaga in nonconference. We've been able to survive it."

Earlier in the week Calipari called Kansas State the most physical team UK has faced this season, and he might be welcoming it.

After watching officiating revert back to how the game was called last season - the NCAA placed an emphasis on calling physical play at the beginning of the year - and seeing his team struggle to finish through contact, Coach Cal made a decision last week to go back to playing under the old rules.

To toughen up his team and get them to play more physical, Calipari said his team had football practices last week.

"Helmets, pads, cleats," Calipari described the practices. "We slid around. Body, put your hand (on them); I just need to see your palms. Now foul the guy. Play through it. I don't want to hear it. Everything was physical, from the beginning of practice until we ended. And it made us more confident that we could play through that kind of play. It also put us in a position where if that's how the game is going, then we can play that way."

The Cats flourished under the new physical style in last week's Southeastern Conference Tournament, defeating two bruising teams in LSU and Georgia and coming within a bucket of winning the SEC championship.

Alex Poythress said they're ready to break out the boxing gloves again Friday.

"I feel like people are getting their confidence a lot better playing physical," Poythress said. "We're not taking the punches first; we're actually giving them out first."

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.

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