Update: Marcus Foster was suspended for their loss to Tech and is out for Saturday's game. They don't appear to have had many answers on offense against Tech. We'll see if Bruce Weber came up with anything for this one.
When Texas goes into the Octagon in Manhattan on Saturday, they will be going up against a familiar looking foe. In the third season of the Bruce Weber era, the high-level recruiting pipeline established by Bobby Huggins and Frank Martin has gone dry. Kansas State has one dynamic sophomore guard (Marcus Foster) and they surround him with a bunch of athletic players without a ton of offensive skill and who can't shoot the ball particularly well. The result is a team that is really easy to guard, which negates most of their efforts on defense.
The Wildcats are coming into the game in the midst of a three-game losing streak that keeps getting worse and worse, culminating in a 64-47 beating at the hands of Texas Tech in Lubbock. Unlike Texas, they didn't play well in non-conference, so they need a win on Saturday just as badly, if not more so. Rick Barnes has had teams with far more talent and a much longer track record of success struggle in Manhattan, so it's easy to imagine a scenario where this game degenerates int a brutal rock fight that comes down to the final few minutes.
Barnes and Weber are two of the most respected coaches in the Big 12, but both have been around long enough to know that there are no guarantees in the coaching business. The conference and its full round-robin schedule is a brutal grind that exposes any flaws that a program might have. Over the last few weeks, we have seen all the holes in Texas and Kansas State. With Texas Tech and TCU suddenly getting more feisty, there's no telling where the bottom is for the team that loses this game.
PG - Jevon Thomas (6'1 180) - A caretaker PG with a decent combination of size, athleticism and shooting ability. He's still only a sophomore, but Kansas State needs more out of him to be successful. As is, there is way too much pressure on Marcus Foster to do everything and you should expect Texas to overload the defense in order to make someone else on the Wildcats roster beat them.
SG - Marcus Foster (6'2 200) - His numbers are down from his breakout freshman season, which is partly a factor of a lack of secondary playmaking or shooting options around him. Foster is a guy who is on NBA radar screens - he's really fast, he can shoot the ball and he can get to the rim and draw fouls - but he'll probably end up staying all four seasons at Kansas State since he's a combo guard without a natural position at the next level. If Foster isn't filling it up, the Wildcats don't have enough scoring punch to win games in the Big 12.
SF - Wesley Iwundu (6'7 195) - A long and athletic swingman who can match-up with multiple positions on the perimeter. The problem is that he can't shoot 3's so if he's not being aggressive off the dribble, he's not much of a help to the offense in the half-court.
PF - Nino Williams (6'5 220) - An extremely undersized PF who has seen his minutes go down in the midst of their losing streak as he deals with a few ailments. Williams is a really physical player who has no problem giving up his body, but at some point you just become too small. I'm really not sure what Weber is thinking trying to get away with starting someone like Williams in the Big 12 - a forward this small should at least be able to stretch the floor and open up the defense but Williams really can't.
C - Thomas Gipson (6'7 265) - A wide-bodied bruiser with the body of a LT, Gipson has turned himself into a solid post player in four seasons in Manhattan. He's a below the rim player, but he has a solid array of hook shots and is hard to root out in the post. Kansas State really depends on Gipson for offense, since none of their other big men are huge threats to score. Ideally, the Texas guards should try to get him out in space and attack him laterally. Gipson is neither super long nor super athletic, so if you can get past the Wildcats first layer of defense, there should be opportunities at the rim.
G - Justin Edwards (6'4 195) - A transfer from Maine with a reputed 40+ inch vertical, Edwards is an elite athlete who can make game-changing plays in the open court. Like a lot of Kansas State players, he's much better in transition than in the half-court. This is not a game where Texas wants to give away a lot of points with turnovers.
C - Stephen Hurt (6'11 260) - A big galoot they roll off the bench who will probably see more minutes than normal to match up with the Texas front-line. He doesn't have a ton of game, but he has the size to at least bang with Cam Ridley and Myles Turner.
Keys to the Game:
1. Who steps up if Felix and Holmes are out? If neither one of those two guys can go, that leaves two gaping holes in Barnes normal rotation. Given the way Texas has been playing lately, that may not be the worst team in the world, since it should give their coach more room to experiment and try something different. Holmes being out means three guard line-ups all the time, which is probably what they should have been doing anyway, although none of the other big man bring as much to the table as a small-ball 4 as Holmes.
2. Contain Foster and Gipson: This is a Kansas State team that is extremely light on shooting and shot-creation. You can zone the shit out of them and load up on their best players with a good amount of confidence that their supporting cast won't kill you, although those type of guys usually play better at home than on the road. There's really no reason for either of their best two players to get a ton of open looks in the half-court.
3. Rick's Last Stand
Does this sound like a man who has anything left to lose?
Barnes on the rest of the season: "I don't know what's gonna happen. I don't have a clue."— Mike Finger (@mikefinger) February 6, 2015
Are you worried, Barnes? "Why worry? I don't know if I'm going to live tomorrow. Nobody's promised me I'm going to live a month from now."— Mike Finger (@mikefinger) February 5, 2015
I don't have much to add to the debate about whether or not Rick should still be the coach because at this point what is there to say? The guy is practically an institution at this school he has been around so long. If you have watched any amount of Texas basketball in the last 15 seasons, you have more than enough information to make up your mind about the type of coach that he is.
One thing I think even his biggest detractors can agree on is that Barnes is nothing if not a survivor. Things may look bad, but if Batman taught us anything, it's that the night is always darkest before the dawn.There's still plenty of talent on this team, there are still moves on the board that he can make with his line-ups and there's still time left in the season to right the ship. Lose this one, though, and the roads to an NCAA Tournament bid start to narrow very rapidly.
The game is at 3:00 PM Central on ESPN. Why they thought this game needed a national audience, I'm really not sure.