ATLANTA – Kansas State has been an afterthought through the NCAA Tournament – until now.
Even in the South Region, where the top four seeds were bounced out on the first weekend — a first for the NCAA Tournament — no one was really talking about these Wildcats.
There were those other Wildcats from Kentucky, which Kansas State sent home; the comeback kids from Nevada and of course the feel-good story of the tournament, Loyola-Chicago.
"We played with a chip on our shoulder throughout the whole season, just trying to prove people wrong," said Kansas State guard Kamau Stokes. "And I feel like we're showing them."
The ninth-seeded Wildcats are indeed making a point. And so is their opponent Saturday night, No. 11 Loyola.
It is an unlikely pairing to play for a Final Four berth.
No. 9 vs. No. 11 in the Elite Eight, another NCAA Tournament first.
But then again, perhaps Kansas State's path to the regional final should not be seen as a surprise. The Wildcats have brought back-alley toughness to the Elite Eight. They don't back down.
They are winning with consistently strong defense that is proving to be the equalizer against higher seeds.
"I don't feel like anyone should pay attention to seeds because they are just opinions, you know? Opinions," Stokes said. "The Top 25 is all opinions and then of course you have to win to get to this tournament. So, once you get here, it's like seeds don't matter at this point."
Kansas State's opponents can't win if they can't score, and the Wildcats (25-11) have held seven straight teams below 59 points. The latest demonstration of Kansas State's defensive prowess came in Thursday night's 61-58 win over Kentucky, which was held to a season scoring low.
Asked on Friday to define Kansas State basketball, junior Barry Brown said "First off, it's defending. We take a lot of pride on defense."
Coach Bruce Weber said "there's no doubt" Brown is the team's defensive catalyst.
"When he was a freshman, I said, who's going to be our defensive stopper, and he's very stubborn," said Weber of Brown. "He's a little bit confident, overconfident, but he said 'I am going to be, coach.' ... He's been the leader. Xavier (Sneed) has really taken some pride as the season has gone on in being a stopper. We've convinced him of that. And then the other guys just have kind of bought into it."
Loyola (31-5) has won its three NCAA Tournament games by a combined four points.
In each NCAA win the Ramblers found a different player to deliver the big shot in the closing seconds. In Thursday night's 69-68 win over Nevada, only 6.3 seconds remained in the game when Marques Townes barely beat the shot clock with his crucial 3-pointer.
Loyola's 13-game winning streak, the longest active streak in the nation, has left the Ramblers one win away from only the second Final Four appearance in school history. The 1963 team won the national championship.
Kansas State will play for its first Final Four berth since 1964.
Here are some more things to know about the Loyola-Kansas State regional final.
LONG-AWAITED REVENGE: Former Kansas State player Ernie Barrett, who played on the team that lost to Kentucky in the 1951 national championship game, hugged players in the locker room following Thursday night's game.
Kansas State had been 0-9 against Kentucky before the regional semifinal. Barrett, 88, had to wait a long time to see his Wildcats finally beat Kentucky.
"It means a lot to us and this program, to the K-State history," Brown said Friday. "He's been to a lot of our practices just to be there and see the hard work that we put in. ... We just wanted to go out there and just do it for him. And once we got it done, I knew he was so proud, was so happy ... just hugging everyone."
MVC, TAKE A BOW: Loyola coach Porter Moser said his team's success in the tournament should bring more respect to the Missouri Valley Conference.
"I think there's a lot of parity in the game, and I love it for our league," Moser said. "There was a lot of talk that we weren't going to get in if we didn't win the tournament, and we know in the Missouri Valley how good a league it is from top to bottom."
RESPECT FOR LOYOLA: Weber has tried to make sure his players respect Loyola, even if they may not know much about the team or its history.
"I told the guys, you can't look at the name, you can't look at the league," Weber said. "You've got to look at the team. They're a good team, and I mentioned they beat Florida at Florida earlier in the year, they beat Tennessee who won the SEC; they beat Miami out of the ACC. So they've got to be pretty good, and whatever they've done here as of late, they're hot."