It's truly "Madness" for the Kentucky Wildcats' Tai Wynyard

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Imagine watching the NCAA Tournament and not really knowing why Kentucky versus Indiana may be a special matchup to many college basketball fans across the country. Or perhaps not fully understanding the significance of first-round upsets like Middle Tennessee State over Michigan State or Yale over Baylor.

That's the unique perspective from which Kentucky's Tai Wynyard is getting his first taste of "March Madness."

Wynyard, a freshman from New Zealand, joined the UK program in December knowing little more than school's history of success and its coach's reputation for developing young players for the pro ranks. The 6-foot-10 forward has been practicing with the Wildcats, but due to the team's depth in the frontcourt, he's been slated to redshirt this season.

During games, the dark-haired big man (pictured above at far right) can often be seen standing and cheering on his teammates enthusiastically from the end of the bench. Doing so in the NCAA Tournament has been a unique experience for a Kiwi.

"It's a pretty cool thing to see, how serious the whole thing is," Wynyard said. "I knew it was a big deal. I had heard stories about it, but it's been interesting to actually see what it's like."

Americans celebrate basketball at this time of year, but you won't find many people in his home country filling out their brackets and getting caught up in the hoops hysteria.

"(Basketball) really isn't covered in the media back home," Wynyard said Friday prior to the Cats' practice session at Wells Fargo Arena. "We all get excited about rugby and other sports."

Or even sports that many Americans probably would not realize as such. Wynyard's father, Jason, is a world champion lumberjack. Tai grew up thinking he may do the same before falling in love with basketball.

He looked from his locker seat with something of amazement as dozens of reporters packed the room to get soundbites and quotes from his UK teammates prior to their matchup with Indiana.

"I've heard there's a rivalry there," he said with a laugh. "Maybe in the past? I don't really know much about it. But you can tell it's something important."

Wynyard will certainly learn soon enough. Kentucky versus Indiana is one of the most anticipated matchups during the first weekend of the tournament. The two programs boast 13 national championships between them and will bring some of the most passionate fans in the country to Des Moines.

In the meantime, Wynyard, who at age 16 was the youngest player ever to make the New Zealand National Team, has been focused on learning what it takes to contribute to a high-profile college program. Practicing against players like Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee, Skal Labissiere and Isaac Humphries has helped improve his game significantly since he arrived in the U.S.

"There's been two things," he said. "First, I'm just trying to get better and keep pushing myself to improve, especially my fitness. Second, I want to bang around with these guys and help our team get better.

"Hopefully, I've helped Skal. He's playing much stronger and more physical. I was real happy for him (Thursday against Stony Brook). That makes me feel like I've helped our team win."

Labissiere scored 12 points, grabbed four rebounds and recorded six of UK's NCAA tourney-record 15 blocked shots in the opening game against the Seawolves.

Wynyard is counting down the days until he gets to play in an actual UK game.

"I'm really eager to get out there and show what I can do," he said. "I can't wait."


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