MANHATTAN — It looks like the Kansas State Wildcats can pull out the respect card one more time.
The ink had yet to dry on Sunday's NCAA Tournament bracket reveal before they emerged as an early upset pick, and not the good kind. Now it's up to the Wildcats, seeded fourth in the South Regional, to prove the naysayers wrong.
They'll get that chance at 1 p.m. Topeka time Friday, when they face No. 13 seed UC Irvine in a first-round game at San Jose's SAP Center. Win that one, and it's either No. 5 seed Wisconsin or No. 12 Oregon next.
"People doubted us when we were winning, people doubted us when we were losing, so that's why I chuckled," K-State senior guard Kamau Stokes said of his reaction to the early upset buzz. "Because no matter what, there's going to be people out there doubting you, so it's really up to us, and if we handle our business there won't be no upsets."
It's not surprising that K-State (25-8) is considered a higher seed ripe for the picking. As was the case last year when the Wildcats started an Elite Eight run as a No. 9 seed, there is doubt surrounding the availability of all-Big 12 forward Dean Wade, who missed both games in the Big 12 Tournament with a foot injury that has plagued him since December.
And UC Irvine (30-5), has not lost since Jan. 16, carrying a 16-game winning streak plus the Big West regular-season and tournament titles into the NCAA. The Anteaters also have plenty of size, rebound well and are stingy on defense.
"They came in here and we beat them a decent amount of points," K-State coach Bruce Weber said of Irvine, which returns most of the players from a team that fell 71-49 to the Wildcats on Nov. 17, 2017, in Manhattan. "But they were huge, I remember that.
"They have a lot of size, they are very good defensively and they rebound the basketball — they're plus-seven (per game) for that. They have, I think, eight or nine guys that played against us last year."
That's all fine and well, said K-State all-conference guard Barry Brown, who along with Stokes and Wade makes up the Wildcats' senior leadership trio. It's up to the Wildcats to draw the distinction between respect and fear.
"I respect them," Brown said. "Thirty wins this year, they're a good team. It's all about respecting them and understanding they've got everyone back from their team from last year, so we've just got to go into this game with that healthy fear, understanding that they can beat us — and advance, win or go home.
"But we're going to come to play and we'll see what happens."
There is such a thing as healthy fear, Brown insisted. Especially with the seniors' knowledge that the next loss will be their last.
"I think it keeps us on edge a little bit, on our toes — not really on our heels," he said. "It gives the edge, that kind of grit, and it's just different when you go into a game and feel like you're going to win it regardless, no matter what happens.
"The healthy fear allows us to come into that game with that edge, that grit, that chip on our shoulder to prove ourselves. It just causes us to do all the little things out on the floor — rebound, make more shots, make the right pass (and) do everything right to try to get that win."
Whether this year's tournament run will include Wade remains a mystery. Weber said that Wade, who averages 12.9 points and a team-high 6.2 rebounds, was scheduled to be examined Monday morning.
"We'll see then," he said.
Should Wade not be ready, at least the Wildcats have experience, and have experienced success, without him in the lineup.
Last year, they went through most of the postseason without him, and this year he missed six games in December and January, including the first three Big 12 contests.
"We've been through it this year," Weber said. "He didn't play five, six games, and a couple of games after that he played 15-20 minutes.
"We won at Iowa State with him playing minimal minutes and scoring two points. The only thing with this team is they are big."
Irvine also is deep and balanced, with nine players averaging at least 5.7 points. Junior guard Max Hazard leads the Anteaters with 12.5 points a game, followed by junior guard Evan Leonard with 11.1, while 6-10 senior forward Jonathan Galloway is the top rebounder at 8.0.
But it's just the second-ever NCAA Tournament appearance for UC Irvine, which lost to Louisville by two points in 2015. It is the third straight trip for K-State.
"The experience helps a lot, because we know what to expect," Stokes said. "We know how to handle certain situations. And having everybody back from that team last year during our run, it means a lot because they know what to do in the tournament, they know how to handle all the pressure if there is any and you know how to prepare for certain teams."