Make no mistake, the Baylor team Kansas State played today was much better than the one the ‘Cats came within a free throw, a defensive rebound, or a missed 3-pointer of beating in Waco.
Still, K-State has its chances to win this game and continued a troubling trend of giving up early advantages in the second home loss of the season. The 76-74 final could have been a lot worse if Baylor had made more free throws early and Marcus Foster hadn't done his best Andrew Wiggins impression late to finish with 29 points.
In the end, though, Foster's 7 (!) 3-pointers still couldn't hide another awful day shooting for the rest of his teammates. Will Spradling went 0-for-6 (all threes) on a less than flattering Senior Day and I'd imagine the shot chart would show very few circles around numbers other than 2 outside the lane.
Just like you'd expect on Senior Day, Kansas State came out with a ton of energy on defense and scored nine straight points to take a 13-4 lead once the offense got going. Marcus Foster did some Marcus Foster things, and Nino Williams' success against Baylor continued.
But these Bears are playing quite well, and even though he wasn't quite on triple-double form, Kenny Chery proved tough to stop as clearly the best point guard on the floor. He scored a career-high 29 thanks to 10 straight free throws late and K-State got the interested, aggressive versions of large NBA draft prospects Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson.
Defensively, Kansas State couldn't seem to figure out how to stop them from catching the ball deep in one-on-one situations, at which point guys like Nino Williams, Shane Southwell, and even Thomas Gipson have no chance of stopping the length of Baylor's bigs. At the other end, the lack of jump shooting for KSU allowed the Bears' zone to tighten up, and Austin and Jefferson held a block party in the second half.
Add in some Brady Heslip open 3-pointers for Baylor when K-State couldn't stop Chery's penetration and transition, and it's pretty easy to see how the Bears mounted a decisive 20-3 run over more than eight minutes. That made it easy to forget the ‘Cats actually got off to a strong start following halftime, thanks to (surprise!) Foster and Williams.
Jevon Thomas made some sensational plays defensively but, unfortunately, he didn't provide an adequate substitute for Spradling on offense. The two point guards combined for 6 of KSU's 11 turnovers, and Nigel Johnson barely even played.
Thomas Gipson had no room to work in the second half, when K-State's defense started to have some uncharacteristic breakdowns. The Bears got the big win they needed to solidify their NCAA tournament status, and Kansas State is back to wondering who will help Foster on offense in the Big 12 tourney vs. Iowa State next week, when lots of point will surely be needed to win.
Before we fall into total panic, though, let's take a moment to reflect on the fact that a team picked to finish tied for fifth in the Big 12 and maybe be a bubble team will finish fifth by itself and an NCAA tournament lock in the best conference in the country. That becomes much more impressive when you consider how the ‘Cats looked in November.
Spradling has at times shown himself to be a viable 3-point threat, and both Gipson and Williams are decent scorers when at their best. K-State's defense will almost assuredly keep it close in most games against non-elite teams, so it's really going to be just a matter of mixing and matching to find the points to support Foster.