Confession time: At one point in the dark offseason, I convinced myself that I needed to get ready to watch a team capable of only winning 10 or 11 games... and that might be if things go right. I wondered if a new guy or two would manage not to be intimidated by Division I basketball. I wondered if the cancer-removing surgery performed by Bruce Weber and staff would yield any positive results, let alone fix the massive problems witnessed a year ago.
Second confession: You wouldn't have been able to get me to bet a single dollar that the Wildcats would be 4-0 and been able to create the inspired buzz they have through fantastic effort and cohesiveness.
But, here we are, and there are five unexpected pieces that stick out to me most as to why.
1) Front court athleticism - One of the biggest reasons, aside from "new," that Kansas State was in the preseason 100s (No. 116) was that it didn't appear the Wildcats would be able to compete athletically most nights. Erm, guess not. A great early season graphic (if someone had a screenshot and posted in the comments, that would be great -- from the first TV broadcast, maybe?) showed how much weight some Wildcats had put on in the offseason, while others like Stephen Hurt and D.J. Johnson had trimmed sizable amounts of body fat.
The physical transformations of several players has been apparent -- current Wesley Iwundu's biceps are as big as freshman Iwundu's thighs -- and they have served as the base for extended stretches of high-tempo minutes. If anything, it's huge for a team that struggles to score in the half-court to have lots of transition opportunities borne out of its ability to get out and run.
Credit: Offseason conditioning programs, and the players' willingness to adhere and thrive in them.
2) Understanding of defensive rotations - This isn't to say the thing is perfect -- because if you've been around the game at all, it's never "perfect" -- but considering the crazy amount of first-year guys, K-State has shown some surprisingly good ability to understand rotations and principles. Now, it's not like opponents have been even average talent, and better speed/teams will likely start to beat KSU's defensive looks. But, it appears Weber and staff have already installed some of the pillar pieces needed in order to be an eventual defensive group that K-State fans can rally behind. That's kinda fun to consider on a night where the team held the
hapless Missouri Tigers to 42 points.
Tempered enthusiasm point: We'll just say, "Missouri." It was Missouri.
3) Ability to offensive rebound - K-State isn't a big team. It isn't over-the-top athletic, even if there is more athleticism there than anyone thought. But, through the first handful of games, it is clear that all five positions are wont to crash the glass and are proving effective at it. Dean Wade has shown a great nose for the ball, and even the new guards - guys like Corlbe Ervin, especially -- are showing they are willing to get in among the trees and hop among them.
4) Dean Wade's early season - His career started with an alley-oop dunk and the kid hasn't stopped yet. It's one of those things where you patiently wait for the growing pains to come and go for a first-year player, but the ceiling appears way, way higher for Wade than initially thought. I talked about his nose for the ball earlier, and that's in addition to a smooth jumper that stretches outside the arc, a willingness to bang his 6-8 frame inside for rebounds and being in defensive position more often than you would expect from a guy who hasn't yet played five games in his career. Underneath Wesley Iwundu's willingness to stay and lead this team, Wade could wind up being the poster boy for Bruce Weber's cleaned house.
5) Backcourt "feel" - Broadcasts are all about the mic'ed up approach these days. I'd love to mic up the former players from last year who fought their coaching staff harder than any opponent they faced and see what they think about being replaced by better players. While these guards collectively don't shoot all that well, their ability to actually manage game pace, recognize situational offense, and execute in transition is light years ahead of the habitual trash the former crew strutted out there. It's unexpected and nice that a transfer and a bunch of freshmen are showing the level of maturity and gamesmanship shown thus far.