It’s hard to be disappointed or surprised anymore when Kansas State (9-2) survives an ugly game against an obviously weaker opponent. Fortunately, this season’s Wildcats don’t need to worry about style points, whether they’re playing in Lawrence or winning 63-49 at home against a mediocre Big Sky team missing its top two scorers.
Kansas State got off to another embarrassingly slow start and fell behind 8-4 after the first five minutes. But this time, the ‘Cats appeared to wake up while using their vastly superior athleticism to go on an 11-0 run.
Then shortly after North Dakota (5-5) switched to a 2-3 zone in which no one even thought about leaving the darker paint inside the 3-point line, K-State fell apart. Some abysmal jump shooting, missed free throws, and later a perplexing inability to catch passes meant an almost seven-minute drought as the Fighting Hawks plodded their way to an 11-0 run of their own.
DJ Johnson ended it with a tip-in and Dean Wade finally hit a 3-pointer to help the ‘Cats limp into halftime with a 24-21 lead. Presumably, Bruce Weber gave a very familiar speech imploring his team to raise its energy level and I suppose you could argue it worked again.
Barry Brown came off the bench to lead an erratic offense to enough points while the Wildcats defense stifled North Dakota, especially late. It never felt totally comfortable with only a five-point lead as last as the five-minute mark, but 9-2 still seems well ahead of preseason expectations, so it's tough to complain too much.
41, 20, +13.
It was a win, so let's start with a positive. Particularly in the second half, Kansas State hit the glass hard and saved itself with 41 rebounds, 20 on the offensive end, and a +13 rebounding margin. The 'Cats entered the night at a solid fifth in the Big 12 in both total rebounds and rebounding margin per game, and third in offensive rebounds.
That's how many turnovers K-State committed against a defense applying almost no pressure on the ball for the entire game. Nine in the first half. That just can't happen. We can't even blame a bad point guard like in the past two seasons. I'm not saying Kamau Stokes was great, but everyone contributed to a night full of sloppy passes, irresponsible dribbling and often a troubling lack of awareness.
Another dismal shooting night ended with K-State shooting under 40% from the field (we'll talk about 3-pointers later) and an absolutely atrocious 12-of-26 from the free throw line. I'd like to believe the latter number was an anomaly, since K-State's two best free throw shooters (Stephen Hurt and Justin Edwards) made a combined 6-of-16.
Player Of The Game: Barry Brown
The freshman guard continues to show his potential as a bonafide offensive threat, this time with 15 points in 27 minutes. As Bruce noted in his postgame interview, the biggest concern for Brown is shot selection, which he seemed to figure out in the second half. Confidence certainly doesn't seem to be a problem, whether it's firing up threes or driving to the basket, and when Brown can make 60% from the field as well as beyond the arc, he's going to have a good night. He also added a team-high three steals.
Tigger Of The Game: DJ Johnson
Note: Since HC Bruce Weber noted there are "a lot of Tiggers on this team," we're going to find that player that had an high-flying offensive play, stonewall defensive play, or a notable performance, and call them out here.
DJ Johnson provided a vital spark for the K-State offense in the first half, scoring all six of his points with a layup and a pair of tip-ins. This was particularly nice to see since he didn't play the entire second half against Colorado State on Saturday due to some foot issues. Stephen Hurt's unimpressive performance and early foul trouble made Johnson's boost even more critical.
Other Notable Performances
Wes scored a very quiet 11 points in 30 minutes and added 5 rebounds to go along with 3 assists. Unfortunately, he also missed 5 of his 9 field goal attempts and committed 3 turnovers.
Kamau Stokes certainly had an active game with 8 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists. I like that he doesn't shy away from trying to lead the offense, but he needs to be more efficient than 3-of-12 from the field and a team-high 4 turnovers.
North Dakota's Drick Bernstine had the best name on the floor and played with more passion than anyone else, leading to 13 points and 13 rebounds — all on the defensive end — in 37 minutes.
1. Shooting could be a serious issue very soon.
Kansas State plays young and offensively challenged Saint Louis on Dec. 29, then Big 12 play tips off Jan. 2 against West Virginia. The 'Cats currently rank ninth, ahead of just Oklahoma State, with 72.8 points per game and they've surpassed 70 just once in the last nine games. The 3-point shooting (7-for-24 Tuesday night) remains south of 30 percent for the season, which has only happened once for an entire season in school history. If it happens again, K-State won't win a lot of games, no matter how well it plays defense.
2. Successful basketball will be ugly basketball.
That being said about the need for improved offense, defense and rebounding will be the keys to victory for this team. The 3-point percentage simply isn't going to make a huge jump unless we see some sort of Christmas miracle, so K-State must find ways to limit opponents and probably slow the game down, particularly against teams like KU and Iowa State that want to run. Points off turnovers must spark the offense and it's not going to be pretty to watch if K-State pulls off an upset. Buckle up.
3. K-State needs more leadership from its returners.
Yes, I'm glad Brown got it done, but I found it a little disappointing neither Wesley Iwundu nor Justin Edwards showed much of an initiative to pick the Wildcats up when they were struggling to score. Edwards came the closest and I did like the way he attacked the basket in the second half, despite the free throw shooting that followed plus a missed dunk near the end. Those two must accept the fact they're needed as go-to-guys in this offense when K-State is in a drought or has to score down the stretch. Leadership is obviously much better than last season, but it appears to still be a work in progress.
Saint Louis visits Bramlage for what promises to be an ugly, defensive slugfest. Then again, the Billikens have also struggled on the defensive end of late while losing six of their last seven, including home losses to Morehead State and UT Martin.