After watching years of Kansas State opening the season sluggishly against opponents they should have easily dispatched, capped off by last years opening loss to Northern Colorado, one could be forgiven for expecting Kansas State to again play with a lack of passion against a team who finished last season with a 2-27 record. However, the Wildcats came out and after a sluggish start, put the pedal to the metal and grounded the Thunderbirds in a 98-68 drubbing Friday night.
Balance was the theme of tonight's game as six players had double digits in scoring led by Nigel Johnson off the bench with 18 points including 4-6 from three point range. Johnson also added 5 assists and zero turnovers. Playing a bunch of minutes tonight with Jevon Thomas as his backcourt mate, due to foul trouble for Marcus Foster, Johnson looked calm and focused taking what the defense gave him in setting his career high.
His backcourt mate Thomas looked like a completely different player showing an improved scoring tough around the basket, while also going 4-6 from the free throw line which I'm sure will please the Wildcat fans. Jevon also dished five dimes on only one turnover.
Johnson and Thomas weren't the only ones who played well tonight as four new comers, Stephen Hurt, Justin Edwards, Tre Harris, and Brandon Bolden all looked impressive in their Wildcat debut. Of those four Hurt was probably the most impressive flashing a smooth offensive post up early in the game to break the Southern Utah zone, and then stepping out beyond the arch to splash a three early in the second half. With that three Hurt tied Shawn Rhodes as the tallest player in Kansas State history to make a three (both players are listed at 6'11"). Bolden provided some much needed energy late in the game, blocking a shot, and throwing down the alley-oop on the subsequent fast break. A few plays later he literally blocked Southern Utah guard John Marshall's shot attempt so hard, that Marshall fell to the ground.
Both Harris and Edwards had quieter games, but I was extremely impressed with Tre Harris' three point shooting as he made 3-4 three point shots. Edwards seemed a bit off, including a reverse alley-oop attempt that he missed due to the pass being slightly off. If he is able to make the small adjustment to his shot, he could easily lead the team in scoring as Marcus Foster predicted in the pre-season.
Speaking of Foster, he was in late season form early connecting on his first two three point attempts, finishing with 13 points in only 19 minutes of game action due to foul trouble that plagued him throughout the game.
Player of the game would have to be Thomas Gipson, who played the second most minutes tonight behind Nigel Johnson. In 25 minutes Big Gip poured in 17 points on 4-6 from the field, and a team high 9-13 from the free throw line. Gip looked smooth down low finishing stong on his lay-up attempts and easily catching the quick interior passes to break down the Thunderbirds' zone defense.
The Thunderbirds were led by A. J. Hess who went 5-8 from three for a team high 16 points, as he single handily kept Southern Utah in the game during the first half. No other player was in double figures for the Thunderbirds who struggled against Kansas State's length as the Wildcats forced Southern Utah into 24 turnovers.
This type of victory is exactly what Kansas State needed as they are only ten days out from the opening tip of the Maui Invitational. Some areas of concern was the Thunderbirds ability to crash the boards as they out rebounded the Wildcats 32-27 in total rebounds, including 15 total on the offensive glass. With as much length as the Wildcats have on the front line this cannot continue as good teams will punish the 'Cats for allowing so many second chance points. The other concern is foul trouble for Marcus Foster. Tonight Kansas State was able to get by with superior depth and talent, but in future games Foster will be counted on to lead this team, and having him on the bench in crunch time will really cause problems. Overall a better than expected victory for Kansas State who will look to continue the momentum when UMKC comes to Bramledge on Monday fresh off an upset victory over Missouri (sorry Luke).