The big names will be doing most of the hard work and getting the attention, but you can't go far in the NCAA tournament without some solid backups.
One of the great things about this season's Kansas State team is its consistency. In a year where you've got teams like Minnesota, Virginia and even Kansas (just to name a few) that are seemingly capable of beating anyone or losing to anyone on any given night, it's been refreshing to know K-State will take care of business in the games it's supposed to win, even if the flip side is almost always losing as the underdog.
It makes sense, then, that Kansas State has done this with three starters (Will Spradling, Rodney McGruder and Angel Rodriguez) who have been in the lineup in at least 32 of 34 games. Beginning with sometime in December, I think you can throw in Shane Southwell as a guy who never missed a start.
That's not to say K-State doesn't have important contributors coming off the bench. I don't think we'd lose too much if Thomas Gipson and Martavious Irving were starting instead, and in fact on many nights they have gotten starters' minutes or in the case of Gipson, actually started.
The play of those two guys is fairly important, and when they can take a little bit of the scoring load off of McGruder and Rodriguez, it's very helpful. Other times, it's even more critical that they come in and play solid defense or grab some rebounds just to keep things running smoothly.
A ton of bench scoring isn't really necessary for this team, and it's been all over the map ranging from 4 points in the loss at KU to 45 in the blowout of Texas. If you want to pick a number to shoot for, the Big 12 games-only median of 18 would probably be a good one, and I suppose it's worth noting 4 of Kansas State's 5 conference losses (at OSU being the exception) saw the bench fall short of that mark.
Then again, they also failed to reach it and still won six times, so it's clearly not crucial to success. Certainly, it's best when Irving and Gipson are contributing in some noticeable fashion that typically includes scoring, but what about the other guys?
Nino Williams must be considered the most capable player in the remaining group, and he certainly has his days when that jump shot is working and he's confidently driving to the basket. K-State probably doesn't beat OSU in Manhattan without Williams' career-high 17, and he can be a dangerous player on both sides of the floor if he's locked in.
Hopefully one day we'll be saying the same thing about D.J. Johnson, though he still has a long ways to go before he becomes a real difference-maker. For now, though, it's encouraging that his effort is perhaps the most consistent of any bench players, and he's generally aware of his current limitations.
I've already talked
at length about Omari Lawrence and quite honestly, if we need him to come in and pick up the energy in the NCAA tournament, that's going to be a problem. He might still provide some decent minutes here and there, though, whereas I'd prefer to never see Adrain Diaz and his awful hands, awareness and coordination on one of the NCAA's stupid standardized basketball courts.
That brings us to one final role on the bench, which is often the most underrated but becomes especially important in NCAA play. Things get pretty intense on big plays or at the end of close games, and players get so excited there's a tendency to stand up and even start moving forward onto the court.
In those situations, we really need Ryan Schultz (I don't even trust Michael Orris for this relatively simple task) to step up and be the holder-backer guy. Even if you can't really hold everyone back at the same time, just outstretching your arms and making it look like you're doing everything you can is critical to preventing any silly technicals and just improving the aesthetics of the bench.
Ideally, we won't have to worry about a close game situation with La Salle, who looked somewhat impressive at times last night in their win over Boise State. Other times, though, especially in the first and last few minutes of the game, the Explorers appeared to be a pretty terrible basketball team.
One thing I am sure of is that Ramon Galloway is a legitimate basketball player (who also happens to have an amazing backstory) and could give Angel some real trouble with his dribble-drive ability. It's really bad news that he re-discovered his 3-point shot last night after a 4-game slump.
But the guy to watch from beyond the arc may be Sam Mills, who made 5 of 6 last night. Tyreek Duren is another guy who can shoot from deep, while Tyrone Garland is more of a slasher who knows what to do when goes into the lane.
La Salle is very guard-oriented, which I have to believe plays to Kansas State's strengths. Their ability to take care of the ball looked very sound last night, but then again that was against a fairly un-athletic Boise State team that played zone for a large portion of the game.
The Explorers averaged an impressive 11.6 turnovers per game and only hit 20 once (in an overtime game) but I'd still like to see what some good pressure from K-State's guards can do, as long as they're not leaving open too many lanes for drives or backcuts. Those are things that La Salle might leave open against the motion offense if they try to attack KSU as much defensively as they did Boise, and I think Bruce Weber has definitely taught his team well enough to take advantage of that.
I'll conclude by returning to bench play, which could be extra important since La Salle only played 6 players last night. I really don't believe much in fatigue being a factor with all the conditioning these guys do and the extra-long breaks they get during the game, but any foul trouble could seriously hamper La Salle.
Any kind of boost from the bench could make sure K-State has no problems in this game, but then again, it's March and anything could happen. Let's hope the 'Cats can keep doing what they've done all season, and that Marshall Henderson is yelling expletives in celebration rather than in agony after his game against Wisconsin.