USA TODAY Sports
The only thing standing between Kansas State and the first conference title in 36 years is what would be undoubtedly this team's best league win this season.
Generally, I like to start these previews by featuring a certain player, or perhaps a strength or weakness of the team as a whole. But it seems safe to assume the rest of you, like me, don't really care about any of that right now and only want to talk about K-State's most important regular season game in quite some time.
It's no secret the offense for both of these two teams starts on the perimeter, with the post players as a clear secondary option, if that. The top four scorers for each team are guards (admittedly, Shane Southwell or Le'Bryan Nash could be called forwards, but they both prefer to be on the perimeter) and the two 1-guards are true leaders, in a lot of different ways.
In the first meeting between KSU and OSU Marcus Smart was excellent, Rodney McGruder was spectacular, and Rod's team won. Sure, a career night for Nino Williams certainly helped, but that doesn't happen if McGruder didn't draw the defense and feed his teammate the ball, giving him some critical confidence that then allowed him to do some things I sometimes wish he would do more often.
That game was a long time ago, and a lot has changed since then. For one, Angel Rodriguez is playing much better basketball on both sides of the court, though Smart is still good enough to get Angel into foul trouble if he's not careful.
On the orange side, Le'Bryan Nash has heated up quite a bit, and he'll be a difficult guard for anyone, even Rodney McGruder and Shane Southwell. The athleticism found in Nash, Smart and Markel Brown is something you won't find often, so K-State must play smart defense and dare them -- especially Smart -- to win the game with their outside jumpers (do not try this with the new hobbit, Phil Forte).
Offensively, I'm not looking for a 26-point half from Rod, but it sure would be nice to see him hit multiple 3-pointers for the first time since Iowa State eight games ago. Then again, the Cyclones offense somehow managed to score 87 despite making only 7-of-22 threes Wednesday night, so outside shooting is apparently not a prerequisite for victory against the Cowboys.
As much as I'd like to see it, though, Kansas State is not going to beat any good teams 87-76 this season. In fact, the 'Cats haven't scored more than 85 all year, and they're 0-3 when giving up more than 70 points. Sigh.
Angel must limit his turnovers, as he has done so well most of the conference season, though admittedly he had taken a nosedive since that five-game stretch early in the season. I haven't seen any indication on whether or not Will Spradling is going to be playing significant minutes or all on Saturday, but especially if he's not I wouldn't mind seeing Martavious Irving shoot the ball a little more.
Southwell looks like a much more dangerous scorer than he was in the Manhattan meeting, and K-State would be well served to take advantage of any mismatch he might have. Sadly, that won't be nearly as frequent as it often is on Saturday.
Of course, now that I've said all this highlight what has to be considered the two best backcourts in the league, some big man is likely to step up and make up the difference. Thomas Gipson's wide body could give OSU some issues if his teammates can get him the ball in the right positions, and of couse any close game means cheap points like those off of offensive rebounds could be valuable.
Oklahoma State's Michael Cobbins really hasn't shown the ability to be an explosive scoring threat and 6-11 center Philip Jurick barely scores at all, but both can hurt you on the boards if you're not careful. K-State won the rebounding battle by 8 in Manhattan, but that might be the toughest stat to replicate with O-State jacked up for Senior Day.
Sadly, there are still some voices nationally who don't believe Kansas State is a top ten team because of the lack of success they've had in games like this where they go in as an underdog. Those people, of course, are idiots and have to tell themselves Florida was an anomaly while ignoring just how rare it is for teams to completely avoid bad losses as KSU has done, but this is still a huge chance to silence the doubters and pick up a huge win heading into the postseason.
Oh, and there's also that Big 12 title thing, the importance of which cannot be overstated. Let's just hope that when the 'Cats take the court tomorrow at 12:30 they're not feeling as nervous and anxious as I'm sure I will be.