ST. LOUIS — 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 open the NCAA Tournament as the No. 8 seed in the Mideast Region against No. 9 seed Kansas State tonight.
Asked if the preseason ranking was unfair for a team starting five freshmen, coach John Calipari scoffed. There are always expectations in the Bluegrass State. "You're at Kentucky. That's part of it," he 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.
"They have handled it great, and I'm proud of them."
Only three Wildcats 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. The Wildcats are the youngest team in this year's field, though that means little. The youngest teams in the past two tournaments have been Michigan, the runnerup to Louisville last year, 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, a freshman starter. "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."
brackets busted: The first full day of the tournament had its usual scream-at-the-TV start, with two afternoon upsets that sent a wave of crumpled brackets flying.
Dayton upset Ohio State, and a few hours later Harvard upset Cincinnati. Those games eliminated almost everyone shooting for perfection. With Dayton's win, about 83 percent of the brackets in Yahoo's Tourney Pick 'Em game were one and done.
At cbssports.com, Dayton took out 81 percent of the brackets. By the time Harvard won, 5 percent were perfect. Of 11 million ESPN brackets, more than 80 percent had Ohio State advancing.
kansas: C Joel Embiid will miss at least the first two games of the tournament with an ailing back, coach Bill Self said. Self has said he believes Embiid will play at some point.
oklahoma state: Marcus Smart, who passed up the NBA draft and returned for his sophomore season, said he has no regrets as he and the Cowboys prepare to face Gonzaga tonight. One reason Smart came back is because Oklahoma State was upset by Oregon in last year's tournament. "I'm ecstatic about it," Smart said. "It's every college student-athlete's dream to make it to the NCAA Tournament, just try to make a run and give yourself an opportunity. That's what we have here." He said he learned from a three-game suspension for shoving a Texas Tech fan this season. "This team has made my decision to come back well worth my while," Smart said. "These are a group of guys that I've got a bond with that will never be broken. We're going to go out and have fun.''
Tennessee: The Volunteers arrived in Raleigh, N.C., early Thursday after rallying to beat Iowa in overtime in the First Four late Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio. This is Tennessee's first NCAA trip since 2011 and the first under coach Cuonzo Martin, who said his team can build off its tough win. "I thought it was great for our guys to play a game like that, a physical game," Martin said. "It'll help us because now you have a game under your belt. Now it's just basketball." The Vols' beefy front line of Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon will be a challenge for UMass center Cady Lalanne.