Even more so than last year, the start of college basketball season hasn't gotten a whole lot of attention in the world of Kansas State athletics. Apparently that tends to happen when you've got an undefeated football team competing for a national title with a quarterback leading the Heisman race.
However, tonight's regular season opener against North Dakota will still go on as scheduled (we should have a game thread) and there are plenty of reasons to be excited about this year's Kansas State basketball team. As long as I'm a writer for this blog, that means we'll still give you a preview of what to expect from the Wildcats whenever you decide switch your focus from the turf to the hardwood. Or preferably, you can focus on both.
Earlier this week, I came up with some questions to distribute, and TB, Panjandrum, Jon Morse and Anon_the_younger all gave me their answers and predictions for how Bruce Weber's first season will turn out. I added my own responses as well, and the results are below.
A quick note: Last season Jon Morse had the most pessimistic predictions and, unfortunately, turned out to be the most right, by my estimation. This November, I hope he won't disagree that he has arguably the most optimistic outlook. A good sign?
1. Will Spradling is so obvious he doesn't even need to be mentioned, but which players will benefit most from having Bruce Weber as the new coach? Who might be hurt by Frank Martin's absence?
TB: We'll learn a lot this year about who needed the freedom Frank wouldn't provide and who needed the discipline and, uhh, "motivation" Frank was more than willing to hand out. I'm sure Spradling will benefit by being free from Frank's mindgames, but it remains to be seen what kind of ceiling he really has. If he doesn't start hitting from deep at about a 40 percent clip, I'm not sure how useful he is to this team.
The big guys should see some benefit from playing for Bruce Weber. We may actually see some offense from them that isn't "grab an offensive rebound and try to score."
Pan: I think Gipson may be helped the most. I think you have a kid with a lot of raw ability and natural size, but what Frank wanted him to be, in my opinion, was something that wouldn't make him the best player he could be. I think with Weber's emphasis on conditioning and refining offensive skill, he'll really improve towards the end of this season and into next year.
I actually think Spradling will hurt the most. Martin stuck with him last year for reasons that I can't seem to understand, and I don't have much (if any) faith in his ability to be a competitive Big 12 basketball player. If things go south for him early this year, I would expect to see him in a reserve role. I don't think Weber will have that loyalty to him that Martin did.
AA: I'm hopeful that Shane Southwell will really benefit from not having to worry about being pulled for every little mistake he makes. The guy has a pretty terrible shot, but he's still got freakish athleticism that could help him do some awesome things, if he's allowed to go through some growing pains.
On the other side, I can't help but wonder if some of the less disciplined ‘Cats will lose some of their intensity on the defensive side of the ball without Martin in their ear for 40 minutes. I don't want to try to guess who this might be, but we can't pretend Frank didn't do an unbelievable job of getting the most out of his team on the defensive end just about every night.
Morse: I think all the guards are going to benefit, as Weber's offense is especially geared toward them. It's impossible to tell -- other than Spradling, of course -- which players were negatively affected by Frank's approach as opposed to just Not That Good, but they're going to benefit as well. The only guys I see being HURT are Angel and McGruder, but I don't think it will affect them enough to really draw notice.
Anon: I think all the players will benefit, a new coach brings a different perspective that can only augment what the players had learned from Coach Martin and staff. If the players let off the intensity too much though, they could lose the fans and games.
2. There's no doubt Bruce Weber took over a team with a full cupboard in terms of experience and talent. What does the new coach have to do to prove himself for a relatively skeptical fanbase?
TB: For this year, with this team, he needs to maintain a level of accomplishment at least on par with what we saw under Frank. This team should finish no worse than fourth in the league, and ought to win a game in the NCAA Tournament. And if Weber can maintain that as an average level of success, the vast majority of K-State fans will be more than happy with him.
Pan: I'd like a Top 3 finish as the Big 12 is really down this year. I'd like to see 24-26 wins as the non-con isn't that strong. And I want to see them beat KU in Bramlage.
He has the point guard, an elite wing, and a strong seven-foot center to go along with eight other returning players and a promising freshman in D.J. Johnson. If Weber is the coach that no other coaches can seem to find a bad thing to say about (per Currie), I want immediate results because the hire was so head-scratching-ly strange.
AA: With just as much talent, another year of experience for virtually everyone, and a weaker Big 12 overall, I think Weber will have to top what Martin did last season to really earn my respect. Whether that means a better record/finish in the conference, Sweet 16, or really, just a win against Kansas - take your pick.
Morse: Win games, duh. Really, that's the bottom line and the only thing that's going to matter. If there's one thing the 'Cats can do to make Weber look good, it's this: win a huge game and then show up to play next time out, rather than having a major letdown. We saw that all too often under Martin.
Anon: Win. If the new coach's winning percentage is less than Coach Martin's worse year, the AD is going to start hearing from alumni. Those of us from the days of good basketball are enjoying the good team and want it to continue.
3. With all due respect to Jordan Henriquez, it's pretty obvious this is Rodney McGruder's team. Assuming he stays healthy, will he live up to the well-deserved preseason All-Big 12 billing? Where will he wind up among Wildcats in the post-Lon Kruger era?
TB: He should, because a motion-based offense should free him up to do things he couldn't before. McGruder should now have more freedom to roam and hurt defenders as a dual threat to hit from deep and put the ball on the floor and get into the paint. If that's the case, he should be a first-team all-conference player. I'm probably not the best to stack him up among the best in the last 20-25 years, but if we exclude Michael Beasley and Bill Walker, I'd still put him behind Jake Pullen, barring an absolutely transcendent season.
Pan: Yes, McGruder should be 1st-team All-Big 12 with an outside shot at Conference POY. I think he'll do really well this year on both ends of the floor.
Where will he wind up? Somewhere around Cartier Martin. Maybe a little ahead. But nowhere near Beasley or Pullen. Definitely ahead of Bill Walker and Denis Clemente.
AA: I didn't expect Rod to make the leap he did last year, so I'm not going to make the same mistake twice. He proved he's more than capable of finding his own shot, and an experienced Angel Rodriguez at point guard should be a big help. If McGruder stays healthy and doesn't fall into any shooting slumps, I think somewhere 20 ppg is a real possibility.
As for his status, I think he could climb as high as second behind Pullen in terms of four-year players, or even juco guys. I say that as someone with very few clear memories of Askia Jones, but also a huge fan of Cartier Martin and someone who believes Larry Reid was criminally underrated. But McGruder's emergence as clear go-to guy and dominant scorer have me very optimistic about his place in recent KSU basketball history.
Morse: Behind Pullen, ahead of Clemente and Jones. (I'm leaving Beasley out of this conversation.) In Weber's offense, Rodney should do well, but we're going to have to see whether Martin's fire-and-brimstone approach actually benefitted his play.
Anon: He has the capability but the team has to help him otherwise it will be a frustrating year for us and him. I think he'll wind up behind Askia Jones.
4. Expectations are awfully low for the two freshmen, Michael Orris and D.J. Johnson, though Johnson had a big game against Emporia and is now supposedly competing for a starting spot. Is his surprising success a mirage, or will we really see a freshman make a significant impact this year after all?
TB: It's hard to take much away from exhibition games against lower-division opponents, but Johnson's performance was obviously encouraging. I'll cop out and reserve judgment until he starts facing bigger, stronger competition.
Pan: A lot of people were skeptical about the late signings of Orris and Johnson, but I had a good feeling about him (as I said in a lot of the comment threads last Spring). I got my hands on some video, and it was really, really solid. He's not a dynamic guy that can pop shots out from 10-15 with great consistency, but he's very long, athletic and he has a great feel for the game around the rim. He has strong shot blocking instincts, and he has that natural ability to quickly read the carom of the ball off of the rim and be in the right place for a rebound. DJ has a very strong feel around the hoop within five feet, and honestly, that's something we've really, really lacked on this team since Curtis Kelly was a junior.
AA: It's hard to imagine we'll see a guy go from probably a redshirt to key player in a matter of months, but then again, Tyler Lockett pulled it off. Still, I'm not sold just yet, and honestly I'll be surprised if he's anything more than an occasional spark in Big 12 play, which would still be useful.
Morse: I'm almost certain we will. Weber's never been shy about giving significant playing time to freshmen, and D.J. was playing his heart out. We'll obviously have to wait and see whether that was just a big game against a small opponent, or whether he's got the stuff to hang in the Big 12, of course. But we've got depth with upperclassmen if he falters, so I'm certain Bruce is going to give him rope.
Anon: If he learns to compete at the intensity of last year's team then I can see an athletic freshman making waves. But unless he embraces Bill Snyder's 16 points, it will be an uphill battle for a new player.
5. Of course we're all going to miss seeing the good version of Jamar Samuels, who was nearly unstoppable at his best. But anyone who watched the ‘Cats knows there are parts of his game that won't be missed as well. How will a frontcourt of Gipson, Adrian Diaz and Henriquez (not to mention Johnson and Nino Williams) compare to what we had last season?
TB: It should be able to provide more back-to-the-basket offense. Like most seasons, last season our big guys didn't seem to do much other than play the role of "chasers" in the chuck-and-chase offense. This is also probably a bigger, more physical lineup than last season. God love Jamar, but he was not built to bang inside with the real bruisers. We should have a nice combination of size and strength (Gipson, Johnson) and height and length (Henriquez, Diaz).
Pan: It will be better. JO is going to get more rope to do things on his own, and I like what Gipson has done from a conditioning standpoint. And Nino can give us some decent energy off of the bench and stretch the opposing four off of the blocks and out to the perimeter because he has the shooting range of a guard. I think there are a lot of neat things you can do with those lineups, and defensively, they're going to be very, very tough.
AA: For all of the frustration and stress Jamar Samuels brought to us, right up until the bitter end, he was a great basketball player on both ends of the floor when his head was on straight and he decided to give full effort on every play. With the exception of Henriquez, whose strengths are completely different, no one in this frontcourt has a ceiling that is even close to Jamar's. That's why I think we're going to see a much more consistent inside game, but one that could struggle against elite post players. I'd love to be wrong.
Morse: I don't know that Nino and D.J. necessarily add up to more than JamSam, but what we've seen so far is encouraging. Gipson was invisible against Washburn; I didn't see the Emporia game, so I don't know whether that was an abberation. If not, we may not see much of Gipson during minutes that matter. I think it's probably a wash.
Anon: If they play consistently, they will win the fans over. Players with bad habits/tendencies are frustrating to watch. If this year's front court consistently does good things, it will help the team a lot. Overall I'm going to call it as a better front court if they play relentlessly. If they are not as intense, then it will be much worse.
6. OK, it's prediction time. Let's start with the nonconference, where KSU should cruise in the first two weeks of the Weber era before things get tricky. How many losses do you see for the ‘Cats, and will they pull off an upset against No. 5 Michigan, No. 10 Florida, or No. 21 Gonzaga?
TB: I'm expecting two or even three losses in the non-conference. This team is still breaking in a new system, so there will likely be some growing pains. If they're going to pull off an upset, I'd say it will be against Gonzaga.
Pan: Well, we have an advantage because Bruce knows Michigan already, so if we face them on a neutral floor, all bets are off. I think we'll take the game against Florida in KC and Gonzaga in Seattle. I think it will be a surprisingly good non-con, and we'll probably lose one or two games.
AA: It would be wonderful if Kansas State could start the season strong and just blow teams away, but even without Frank Martin, I don't see that happening. I'm actually a little disappointed with the lack teams projected to be at KSU's level, though a game at George Washington could be an interesting test in the only game K-State will play on an opponent's campus. I don't see KSU beating Michigan if we get to that point, and Gonzaga in Seattle seems like too much of an ask. Florida in KC has upset potential, though, so I'm saying we get to conference play with 2 losses.
Morse: I think we'll be playing for the NIT Season Tip-Off championship, and I just have a gut feeling it won't be against Michigan. Gonzaga is beatable. So I'm going to crawl way out on the ledge here and predict we actually manage to enter conference play at no worse than 11-2, with 12-1 a real possibility.
Anon: I think the team is capable of pulling an upset or two. I'll make my prediction as the lim (as intensity approaches zero) = 10-3 and as the lim (as intensity approaches maximum) = 13-0. As you can tell I have no idea what to expect this year, I think the players are capable but not sure if they will continue to pressure and harass other teams as well.
7. As much as it hurts all of us to say it, there's no disputing Kansas owns the Big 12 until proven otherwise. The league may not be as strong at the top as it has been outside of Lawrence, though, so how far can K-State climb? Where will they be go in the postseason?
TB: There's no reason K-State can't compete for third place in this conference. I think KU and Baylor are the two best teams, and after that there's a huge pile of teams with one question mark or another. K-State has a new coach. West Virginia has no apparent talent, but is coached by Bob Huggins. Oklahoma State has a bunch of talent, but is coached by Travis Ford. Iowa State lost Royce White. Texas has a bunch of talent, but we say that every year about Rick Barnes' squad. Somebody has to emerge from that group and finish third, and I agree it will be with an ugly overall record.
This team should absolutely be an NCAA Tournament team, but if they make it to the second weekend, I'll be pleasantly surprised. Preseason Bracketology has K-State as a No. 7 seed, which is about in line with my expectations.
Pan: K-State has the critical pieces needed to compete for the conference title. We have one of the three best point guards in the conference, we have the best wing in the conference, and we have a solid big-man. We have tons of experience, and we know that Weber does well with another coach's players.
I think the ingredients are there for a strong season, and we'll be a very, very good defensive basketball team as Weber's teams, overall, have the same kind of defensive efficiencies (better in some cases) than Frank's. Will we be better than Kansas? I don't know. I do know that Baylor is coached by Scott Drew, so I'd give us an edge there.
I think we'll finish Top 3 in the conference and have a 4-6 seed in the NCAA tournament. Depending on the draw, we may be able to get to the second weekend.
AA: We all know Scott Drew is very capable of derping things up at Baylor, but that is a much more talented team than K-State so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt for now. Beyond that, I see no reason why Kansas State finish third in the conference. It may take some luck and it will probably still mean 5 or 6 losses, but a 3-seed in Kansas City could set the 'Cats up for a Sweet 16 run with the right draw.
Morse: Pretty sure we'll pull off a third-place finish. It may be a sloppy third, though; we're talking an 11-7 kinda deal with a bunch of teams clustered around .500 in league play. I'm not looking for a top-quarter seed in the tournament, for which we should already be a lock by mid-February. Advancement... I'll call for the Sweet Sixteen, and prepare myself for disappointment.
Anon: If the team focuses and plays 200%, I think much good can happen. If the team doesn't focus then it will not be a good year for Wildcat basketball. I'm hoping it is the former as it will mean competing for 2nd place in the B12 and a nice viewing experience in March/April, but until actual competitive games happen I think it is a WAG about how the team will do this year. The contingency prediction says lower division of the Big XII and no tournament.