At this point, it would be a ridiculous understatement to say that K-State's basketball season is a little off course from what it was expected to be in the preseason. If you're like me, your only solace right now is that the K-State athletic department didn't splatter a ridiculous "History Awaits"-type slogan all over all the promotional materials for the season. I mean, it was bad enough that they put Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly, breaking through a paper barrier, on the posters. That's not a Photoshop opportunity waiting to happen or anything.
But I digress. It would be redundant to rehash in detail the Colorado, Texas Tech and Missouri games. Instead, I will address several of the bigger-picture issues facing this team, using examples from each game as illustrations. Hit the jump for more.
Struggling to protect the ball is often a product of other problems, but that makes it a good place to start, because we can address the other issues.
In its six losses, K-State is averaging 18.8 turnovers per game. Only twice in those six losses have the Cats kept the turnovers under 20, those games being Florida (9) and Colorado (15).
Why is K-State having such a hard time protecting the ball? There are a few reasons. For one, Frank Martin doesn't really have one excellent ball-handler. Pullen isn't bad, and Martavious Irving, Juevol Myles and Nick Russell aren't bad, but there's no Denis Clemente on this team. We talk plenty about Clemente's speed and leadership, but his handles were an overlooked part of his game. Even at the speeds he moved, it was rare for him to dribble one away off his foot or leg.
Another facet of the turnovers is the often-stagnant offense. It's easy to guard a player who's standing still or isn't cutting with any real purpose. Also, one thing that killed me against Missouri was watching us run our offense from 35-40 feet away from the basket. A player who catches the ball that far from the basket is a threat to do only two things: dribble or pass. That's easier to defend than a player who's a triple threat when he catches the ball. Not to mention the passes are necessarily longer out there, leaving more time for a defender to get in the passing lanes and get a deflection or steal.
We're all well-acquainted with Jim Wooldridge's famous "fool's gold" quote regarding the three-point shot. And while it's easy to belittle Wooly because he wasn't a successful coach in Manhattan, it is true that for all but the most exceptional shooters, the three-pointer is a fickle mistress. K-State doesn't have a single player this year who is a true sniper, the kind of player who every time he gets an open look, you think "that's in." There aren't a lot of true shooters in college anymore, at least in part because the fundamentals-destroying AAU circuit emphasizes playing games over practicing. It's hard to become a good shooter if you never practice.
With a couple minor exceptions, K-State tends to shoot a lot of three-point shots at an atrociously low percentage in the games it has lost.
- Duke: 17 attempts, 17.6 percent
- Florida: 19 attempts, 15.8 percent
- UNLV: 12 attempts, 25 percent
- Oklahoma State: 21 attempts, 28.6 percent
- Colorado: 21 attempts, 33.3 percent
- Missouri: 16 attempts, 18.8 percent
Of those, only the UNLV game is an acceptable performance from deep, and it's only acceptable because we didn't keep chucking despite only making one in every four. Colorado doesn't qualify as an acceptable performance because 33.3 percent isn't really all that good and because we had such a size advantage against Colorado that there was no reason to attempt 21 shots from deep.
Now, of course the response to that is that deep shots are almost part of K-State's offense because the Wildcats are such a good offensive rebounding team. And that's true. According to Ken Pomeroy, the Cats rank third in the country in offensive rebounding percentage. So that seems good, except then you look at K-State's two-point field goal percentage (46.9 percent, 199th nationally) and free-throw shooting percentage (59.9, 335th nationally) and realize that there's a problem in Manhattan. Most field-goal attempts that result from offensive rebounds are of the two-point variety, and the Cats are below average at making such shots. Being fouled in the process of shooting is also a likely result of grabbing an offensive rebound, and we all know about this team's deficiencies from the charity stripe.
This is my last point, and my guess is it will be the most controversial point. After the Colorado loss, Jacob Pullen made it clear that he doesn't like the NIT.
"This is my last go-around," Pullen said. "I'm not going to the NIT. I won't play basketball in the NIT. I'm saying that now. If we lose, and we have to go to the NIT, I will not play."
Pullen got ripped for his comments. Two of K-State's most-respected writers, Rob Cassidy (also here) and Austin Meek, were quick to point out that the problems this season are not Pullen's fault. They're right, of course, or at least to an extent. Jake popping off in the media isn't what's causing this team to lose. And Jake's actually been playing pretty well since returning from his suspension, averaging 20.6 points, 3.8 assists and 2.2 turnovers per game. He certainly has not been the worst player on the court for the Cats, by a long shot.
No, my problem with Pullen's quote is not that he spoke his mind or because I think it's subliminally affecting his shot or causing him to turn the ball over too often. It's just a terrible mindset to have, especially at this point in the season. The comment was made the evening that K-State lost at home to Colorado to fall to 0-2 in conference. While it was the low point of the season to this point, it hardly sealed an NIT bid as K-State's fate. And yet, that's what was on Pullen's mind in that press conference. He was thinking about what would happen if the team kept losing. He was not thinking about fixing the problems and getting the team back to winning.
Combine that with Jamar Samuels' "leadership thingy" quote from earlier this season, not to mention the Pullen/Kelly suspension, and it's been obvious this team lacks players who are willing or able to lead, by example or otherwise. I know what the skeptics are saying. But TB, "leadership" doesn't make shots and "leadership" doesn't prevent bad passes and dribbling the ball off your foot. Fair point. But it's been obvious this season that this team loves doing the things that are easy. They love beating up on overmatched opponents. But with few exceptions, this team has been unable to get tough when the opposition fights back. You're going to point to the Gonzaga game and the Washington State game and probably the Virginia Tech game (even though it was at home) as counterexamples. Washington State is now 14-5 and 2-3 in the weak Pac-10. Virginia Tech is floundering at 11-5. I'll concede the point on Gonzaga because they have turned their season around, but were a mess when they met K-State in Kansas City.
The bottom line is that this team has a lot of problems. It's not one player or one issue that's the sole cause of the issues right now. I'll go back to one of Meek's quotes to wrap this up. He wrote that "[i]f you're trying to draw a corollary between public candor and lousy shooting, I'm not buying it."
I'm not, either. It wasn't the fact that Jake spoke his mind that bothered me. It was the substance of what he had to say that bothered me. I am drawing a corollary between a lousy attitude and a lack of leadership.
But again, Jake is hardly the sole cause of this team's problems. And that's what is really scary.