Apologies for missing an Iowa State preview, as I was indisposed this weekend. As it turns out, the Texas Longhorns handled the Iowa St. Cyclones at home, winning 86-76. That's a great start to what I called the "danger zone" four game stretch Texas needs to navigate in order to set itself up well for the rest of conference play. Up next: the Kansas St. Wildcats.
If the Iowa State game was offensively pleasing, then the Kansas State game promises to be an ugly defensive battle. That's neither causality or correlation. Just a future fact. (Please disregard if the final result is something like 94-86.)
After early season losses to Georgetown (cool), Charlotte (OK...), and Northern Colorado (LOLWUT), the Wildcats have really settled into a groove. They're 4-1 in conference play, with the lone loss coming, respectably, at Kansas. Aside from dropping a season-opening loss to Northern Colorado (again, LOLWUT), Kansas State has held serve at home. That includes impressive conference wins against Oklahoma State and Oklahoma.
Shane Southwell: The 6' 7" senior swingman is Kansas State's de facto leader/best player. He played sparingly his first two years, but moved into the starting lineup early last year and stuck there as K-State's glue forward. With Rodney McGruder (graduation) and Angel Rodriguez (transfer to Miami) gone, Southwell has moved into a lead role. Already a great defender, Southwell has also evolved into a solid all-around player and can beat you in multiple ways.
Will Spradling: The 6' 2" senior guard has always reminded me of a homeless man's Aaron Craft, and the disparity has gotten wider with age. Like Craft, Spradling isn't a great outside shooter, and his 3-pt% of 30.4% this year would be a career-worst. Unlike Craft, Spradling doesn't really score at all. His possession usage is the lowest on the team, meaning he starts strictly for defensive purposes. On that aspect, he's still pesky.
Marcus Foster: A 6' 2" freshman, Foster was a low-ranked 3* guard from Wichita Falls Hirschi who has outperformed his star ranking. Foster leads the team with 14.0 PPG, and has scored in double-figures in each of K-State's four conference wins. His 17 point, 8 rebound outburst against Oklahoma State was a key reason for the Wildcats' win. Foster can handle the ball along with Spradling and Southwell, making the Wildcats versatile on the perimeter.
Wesley Iwundu: Like Foster, the 6' 7" Iwundu was a lightly recruited Texan (Iwundu played at Houston Westfield). He starts as a freshman as well, giving Bruce Weber a couple core youngsters to build around going forward. A quick glance at the stats shows Iwundu doesn't do anything particularly well, but he doesn't do anything particularly poorly, either.
Thomas Gipson: The 6' 7" interior bruiser will be one of Cam Ridley's biggest challenges to-date. Unlike prior foes, the 265 pound junior won't be pushed around. Gipson started the season slowly due to
suspension a concussion, but is more or less good for his 12/6 averages on a given night. Law of averages! At his height, Gipson isn't much of a shot-blocker, but he can rebound and score.
Nigel Johnson, Jevon Thomas: Kansas State has a couple of freshman guards that can handle the ball. Thomas was ineligible until after the fall semester, but has given the Wildcats a shot in the arm as a backup ballhandler and "sixth starter." His shooting percentages classify as atrocious, but Thomas has a sky-high assist rate of 28.9%. As a result of Thomas' success, Johnson's minutes played have decreased going into conference play.
Omari Lawrence: Kansas State's sixth guard, the 6' 3" senior has seen spotty minutes all season. He has just 6 points total in conference play.
Nino Williams: The 6' 5" junior started the season as K-State's 6th man, a role now owned by Thomas. Williams buys about 14 minutes a game and can be counted on for high-efficiency scoring and some rebounding. If he's lucky and/or good, he'll find himself on the Southwell/McGruder track to upperclassman success.
D.J. Johnson: The 6' 9" sophomore has a big frame and filled in ably for Gipson at the beginning of the season. Like Lawrence, Johnson's minutes have dwindled in conference play, resulting in just 3 points scored in his last five games.
Keys to Victory:
1. Don't give up easy buckets: Just about the only thing Kansas State is good at on offense is rebounding. The Wildcats are a miserable jump shooting team and just happy to be mediocre from distance. If Texas can limit easy at the basket shots and open 3's, the Wildcats will find it hard pressed to score.
2. Utilize size advantage at the 4: While Ridley and Prince Ibeh may have tough sledding inside against Gipson and Johnson, Jonathan Holmes and Connor Lammert possess a size and experience advantage against Wes Iwundu. Texas needs to maximize point and board production from the 4.
3. Make free throws: Kansas State likes to foul.
Even with the home-court advantage, the Wildcats can and will send Texas to the line. The Longhorns will need to do better than their 66% season average. And yes, I expect some homerific calls. Update: game is at Erwin. My B.
4. Don't cough up the rock: The Wildcats already play enough smothering defense to make it tough sledding for Texas to hit shots. Giving up the ball via routine turnovers prevents Texas from opportune rebounds and easy putbacks.
The Longhorns have won three in a row to go back above .500 in conference play. Can Texas make it 4? The game is at 6:00 p.m. on ESPN2.