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K-State Basketball 2008-09: Aspirations and Expectations

While I realize this year's K-State men's basketball team is already 3-0 and thus it isn't really possible to "preview" the season as such, Panjandrum, EMAW and me have put our thoughts on the season to cyber ink.  Thanks to FSN and its ridiculous regional blackouts, I haven't had the chance to see this team play yet this season, and probably won't until next week when they play in Las Vegas.  Of course, Panjandrum and EMAW have the good sense to live in Kansas City, rather than Texas, and have seen the team play a couple time thus far.

Also, note that most of the post was written prior to last night's game against Emporia State.  Panjandrum added on his last bit in response to the disappointing effort against the Hornets.

Hit the jump for more.

TB: With the obvious exception of anticipating a player like Michael Beasley last year, this is the most excited about a college basketball season I've ever been.  Even when Bob Huggins was hired, I was figuring it would be at least a year or two before we saw any significant success.  But now, in year two of the Frank Martin and Dalonte Hill era, I'm really getting cranked up to see this team get after it.
Why am I so fired up about a team the Big 12 coaches picked to finish eighth in the league this year, and one of our colleagues picked last?  Certainly not because I think I'm smarter than 12 gentlemen who get paid millions of dollars to coach this game.  But I think most of the coaches and media members did nothing beyond noting that Beasley and Bill Walker were gone, and thus assumed K-State was headed for a major dip this season.
Why do I believe we're going to be better than the experts think?
Talented Players
The overall talent level at K-State has never been higher than it is now.  With guys like Jacob Pullen, Dominique Sutton, Jamar Samuels, and Denis Clemente, among others, we simply have better players overall than we've had since the late 1980s.  Good players alone can't do it all, but they're definitely a good start.
A More Experienced Coaching Staff
Getting a season under their belts had to be huge for Frank Martin, Dalonte Hill and company.  They've seen what it takes to run a basketball program in the Big 12 Conference now.  While they do have to adjust to not having a go-to player like Michael Beasley now, the stats from the first few games indicate to me they have the players bought into sharing the ball and playing together as a team.  If we can find something resembling a low-post presence, we will surprise a lot of teams.
A Favorable Schedule
While I think the prognosticators are wrong even in this regard, I will note that the preseason predictions seem to be more of a power poll than an actual prediction of where each team is going to finish.  Five of the top six teams in the conference could be from the South, but I doubt it.  Up here in the North, we get a pretty good look at eight conference wins just by playing Iowa State, Colorado, Nebraska and Missouri twice.  And in this season when KU lost a ton of players and will probably struggle, at least for a while, breaking in the new ones, the 'beaks are not invincible to any team.  Throw in home games against OU and Baylor out of the South, and we at least have a fighting chance with the home crowd behind us against.  Among our other South opponents, we get Texas Tech at home, Oklahoma State has a first year coach and is an unproven commodity, Texas A&M isn't unbeatable, and sometimes we play really well at Texas for some reason.  Mind you, I'm not making any predictions -- yet -- but merely pointing out that the Big 12, and the North in particular, is not as strong as it has been in the past, leaving the door open to a talented team that plays well together.
Player to Watch
My player to keep an eye on this year is Denis Clemente.  He is a proven commodity from the ACC, although you never know what a year off may do to a guy.  So far, he's been very good against bad competition, averaging 11.5 points per game.  I'd like to see him get that assist-to-turnover ratio up, so that will be something to keep an eye on.  But from the people who have seen him play, he is a blur with the basketball and should be able to create off the dribble and open up players like Dom Sutton and Jamar Samuels to finish around the rim.
Other than the Big 12/Pac-10 Series game at Oregon and the Las Vegas Invitational that will feature games against Kentucky and either West Virginia or Iowa, the non-conference is bereft of name opponents.  Oakland is not a team to be taken lightly, as they beat Oregon this week, but for the most part we should be able to handle the other opponents.
Predicted Non-Conference Record: 13-2
The Big 12 schedule was broken down above.  I'm not going to predict any games individually.
Predicted Conference Record: 9-7
That would be an overall 22-9 record, pending the Big 12 tournament.  My guess is that a 9-7 conference tally would place us somewhere around fifth or sixth, just outside a first-round bye in Oklahoma City.  That would mean a first-round conference tourney matchup with either the 11 or 12 seed in the conference, and likely another win before a shootout with one of the top-four teams in the conference.  I would also think that such an overall record would put us on the bubble for the NCAA tournament, with a lack of a marquee non-conference win and a 9-7 ledger in the North possibly holding us back from a second straight appearance in the Big Dance.

Panjandrum: In all honesty, I started off the year with guarded optimism regarding this team.  I thought that they would be better than most expected, but I wasn't sure exactly where the scoring and rebounding would come from.  Sure, I have a lot of faith in Frank Martin as a coach, and I definately believe in Scott Greenwalt's ability to mold these young men into the most fit team in the Big 12 conference, but after losing Beasley and Walker, I just had no idea where the offense would come from.

However, after watching an exhibition game (Washburn) and two regular season games (Florida A&M, SEMO), I'm going to be honest...this team is ahead of the curve in my opinion.

In the first two regular season, this team has six scorers averaging in double figures.  Now this isn't a great sample to work from considering it's two games against bad competition, but what strikes me is the balance in the scoring.  After Beasley and Walker left, we were all concerned about where the points would come from, but we currently have six guys averaging double figures, and the range is between 13.5 ppg (Samuels) and 11.5 ppg (Clemente).  That's the definition of balance.  From a rebounding standpoint (another area of concern), KSU has a +12.5 average margin per game against their opponents.  Also, they have a +8.5 assist margin per game, and they are averaging 2.5 assists-to turnovers.  This is very solid.

However, the most impressive thing about this team isn't the offensive balance and rebounding, but the improved play of the defense.  After the first two games, it's easy to see that the suffocating man defense that Bob Huggins intended to bring to Manhattan was ultimately implemented by Frank Martin and taken to another level with this athletic and well-conditioned group of guys.  After two games, KSU is forcing opponents to shoot 34.1% on field goals, and they are forcing seventeen turnovers a game.  Due to an increased sense of aggression on the defensive end of the court, an improved understanding of help defense, and a tendency to jump the passing lanes in an attempt to force turnovers, KSU is frustrating opponents and overwhelming them from the opening tip.  The one stat that everyone should be impressed by is average first half scoring margin...

In the last two games, KSU has outscored their oppenents 87-36 in the first half.  Let me repeat: KSU has outscored their opponents by an average of 25.5 points in the first half alone.  While all of the stats that I've thrown out may seem somewhat meaningless to folks who just scan the box scores, those that have watched the games have seen KSU just overwhelm their opponents in the first half to the point where these games ultimately devolve into a glorified practice involving walk-ons by the early part of the second half.  Walk-ons Victor Ojeleye and Justin Werner are both averaging over ten minutes a game, and former walk-on Chris Merriweather is averaging 14.0 minutes a game.  KSU is putting these games away early, and they aren't even breaking a sweat.

All that said, I think that this is a deceptively talented team, and they are underrated as a whole.  Like TB, I predict an upper half finish in the Big 12, but unlike my level-headed friend, I see bigger and better things than "The Bubble" at this point.  I really think that KSU can (and will) get out of the non-con with a 14-1 or 15-0 record, and I see them winning 9 or 10 games in the conference.  Due to the weakness in the North division, I think KSU can steal a lot of wins against Colorado, Iowa State, Nebrsaka, and Missouri, and I also think that KSU can (and will) take at least one game from KU.  Yes, I'm serious.  Also, like TB, I think that the South swing is favorable for us to the point where a top four finish isn't out of the question.

So, if I'm predicting a record today, I'm going to put on my homer-hat on and say that this team will go something like 23-8 +/- 1 in the regular season, and I think they may pick up another win in the Big 12 tournament.  I really believe that this team could waltz into the NCAA tournament with twenty-five wins under their belt.  I really do.  The seed may hurt a bit from an RPI standpoint, but I don't see this being a team that loses a lot of games that it shouldn't because the guard play of Pullen and Clemente is solid, and the defense is so damn good.

Guys, I really think that this has the potential to be a fun, fun year.  I'm looking forward to it immensely.

EMAW: Coming into this season, I think we all knew this team probably wouldn't be as dangerous without Michael Beasley and Bill Walker. However, knowing the recruiting class that was brought in and the players that returned, the outlook is still good for a finish in the top half of the Big 12. Many "pundits" and "experts" just wrote off K-State the moment B-easy and SkyWalker lifted off to the NBA. Those same people need to take a closer look at the talent that this team holds.
Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente comprise the backcourt threat that K-State has been needing for almost two decades. They are both explosive to the basket, but also have good enough range to make them a shooting threat from outside (although they've struggled so far). Clemente's speed is a blessing and a curse. He's fast enough to get ahead of lagging defenders, but he seems to hurry himself too much, which causes turnovers. The two essential keys for him this season will be free-throw shooting and turnovers. As much as he drives the lane and beats the defense for secondary-break layups, he'll spend much of his time at the charity strip. So far he's shooting 90% from the line.
The biggest question mark lies on the low post. Jamar Samuels is a very athletic big man. I was very impressed after I finally got to watch him for the first time against Florida A&M. He has some "quick" hops, and he should be fun to watch over the next few years. I do worry about him keeping his emotions in check (he drew a Technical against FAM), and he does have some room to grow in regards to learning the game. To me, he has the biggest upside among the players on this team.
The non-conference schedule lines up pretty nicely for us, and I think going to a neutral site to face top-notch programs like Kentucky and Iowa/West Virginia will be exactly what this young team needs. I do see the team stumbling a bit at one point, just due to being young. We saw a much better team get beat by Oregon last year just because the Ducks had a much more experienced team. I think we'll have a couple of "WTF?" losses to deal with before we hit Big 12 play, but it comes with the territory of having a young team.

One conference play starts, I'm expecting about an 8-8 finish. I'm not trying to lower expectations, I just feel like young (and athletic!) teams have a tendancy to struggle at certain points in the season. Let's hope I'm wrong, and there's a good chance I will be. Frank Martin has a firm grasp on these (athletic) kids, and I don't see any 4 or 5 game losing streaks on the horizon.
Here's my breakdown:
Non-con: 12-3 (all home games are must wins)
Big 12: 8-8
Conference tourney: One, maybe two, wins
Overall, 20-11 would be very respectable for a team that lost two players to the NBA draft and is full of several young players that many outside of Manhattan have never heard of. This record would put us squarely on the bubble and would require Frank and the boys to post a couple wins in the Big 12 Tournament to earn a spot in the Big Dance. Right now I'll be satisfied with an NIT berth, although that is subject to change if this team shows a little more than what I'm expecting.
Oh, and another win against KU (either Manhattan or Lawrence, maybe Africa) is a definite possibility.

Panjandrum: I also want to mention that I believe this team will win a lot of ugly games this year (i.e. Emporia State).  I've always believed that teams take on the persona of their coach, and in our case, I think that means that our team will ultimately become a bunch of street fighters.  Tough, scrappy, and when they fight, it's not pretty, but they'll either win or make the other guy hurt even if they lose.

This team is deep.  It's not deep in the sense that we have ten McDonald's All-Americans or NBA draft picks, but the players we do have are all pretty 'good'.  None of them are 'great' (though I think Pullen and Samuels have the ability to be at some point), but they are all capable of stepping up and scoring in double figures, someone in the front court can get a double-double, or a guard can dish out five assists.  It's just a true team.

Ultimately, I think Frank uses that depth to wear teams out.  Over the course of the game, KSU will just come at teams.  Even if we're having a bad shooting night, or the defense is a step slow, our twelve guys will be pushing the other team's best eight or nine players all game long.  They'll play tough man-to-man defense all night long, and they will jump into the passing lanes.  They'll dig their elbows into your back when you're on the blocks, and they will constantly slap at the ball when you have it on the perimeter.  They will be disruptive and frustrating, and over the course of forty minutes, it will drive the opposing team crazy.  I think KSU will win a few games they shouldn't just due to the fact that, psychologically, they will beat the other team into submission.  They will just keep coming at you all game long, and win or lose, they're going to make you earn it.

Kind of like a street fighter.