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How far K-State will go this season depends largely on how far the starters can

The Wildcats finished non-conference play 11-1, but Big 12 play will reveal a lot about this team

NCAA Basketball: Barclays Center Classic-Maryland vs Kansas State
Senior Wesley Iwundu will likely need to be the catalyst.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

It is no secret that Kansas State’s non-conference slate this season has been prosaic. Uninspiring. Too easy.

The problem is twofold: not only did this team lose its one game against decent, sub-145 RPI competition when it lost 69-68 to Maryland last month, but breezing through such a friendly non-conference schedule — KenPom ranks the Wildcats’ strength of schedule 344th out of 351 Division-I teams — does K-State no favors when Big 12 play rolls around.

Oh yeah, that’s next Friday, when Texas pays a visit to Manhattan.

So at the threshold of conference play, where does that leave K-State? At an 11-1 record, first of all, but because its best win so far has been a 19-point victory over Colorado State — which ranks 146th nationally in RPI, by the way — the Wildcats find themselves in a peculiar spot with compellingly better, Big 12 competition right around the corner.

It doesn’t have to be all bad, though, and that’s part of what makes K-State’s situation so unique. Five Wildcats are averaging double figures in points: starters Barry Brown, D.J. Johnson, Wesley Iwundu and Kamau Stokes, plus sixth-man Xavier Sneed. Dean Wade is the other regular starter, averaging 9 points per game.

That’s where things get interesting for K-State. The rest of the lineup is thin, especially now that forward Dante Williams has chosen to transfer, and fellow big man Isaiah Maurice has been suspended indefinitely for “departmental violation.”

Aside from Sneed, that leaves the Wildcats’ bench as such: Carlbe Ervin, Austin Budke, Pierson McAtee, Zach Winter and Brian Patrick, the latter four of whom are normally saved for garbage time (Budke and Patrick both contributed against Colorado State, but more on them later).

And that is precisely the problem K-State is now tasked with solving. Head coach Bruce Weber must now take a sort of all-or-nothing approach to his lineup, requiring him to hand his big-time producers hefty minutes, while the other guys see seriously limited action. It’s an approach that worked during the team’s easy non-conference play, but one that is doomed to fail as Big 12 action looms large.

So if K-State is to finish its conference schedule at .500 or better, its starters will need to do the heavy lifting — consistently, too. There are no off-games in the Big 12. If Budke and Patrick remain the mostly garbage-time reserves they were during non-conference, you’re left with the regular guys: Stokes, Brown, Ervin, Iwundu, Sneed, Johnson and Wade.

But Brown stands out. On a team dealing with a degree of inconsistency this year, Brown has proved the most reliable: of K-State’s 12 games, the sophomore guard has tallied double-figures in 10. His high is 18 points, while his low is 3. That’s a considerable difference, but when he’s scoring in double-figures reliably, you take uninspiring outings against Gardner-Webb and Saint Louis with a grain of salt.

Johnson, on the other hand, has seen both ends of the spectrum. He’s had games of 26, 19 and 16 points, but also ones of 4, 6 and 3 points. That’s worrisome for K-State, not only because as a senior, he was practically a no-show in those slower games, but it also becomes fair to question his dependability. When Kansas comes to town, will he turn in another lackluster game? Or will he wake up and score 20?

Much will also be required of the senior Iwundu when Big 12 action begins, as was the case even before the 2016 campaign began. He’s averaging 11.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, which are solid numbers, but his responsibilities now assume even greater meaning as a senior. The onus will be on Iwundu to will his team to road wins.

The rest of the Wildcats’ arsenal is intriguing. Wade’s been putting up quietly solid games, Stokes and his 3-point prowess have been largely dependable this season, Sneed has formidable potential, and his transition to conference competition will be telling, and Ervin has provided a steady presence at the point guard spot, even if his numbers don’t stand out.

If K-State’s short bench steps up, Weber won’t complain. But K-State’s 11-1 non-conference record is all we have for reference, so for now, it’s on Brown, Johnson, Iwundu, Stokes, Sneed, Wade and Ervin to take K-State as far as it can go.

Those are the players that must carry K-State. Otherwise, the Wildcats are glaring down the barrel of another 5-13 Big 12 record like last year — or worse.

The test begins Dec. 30, when K-State hosts Texas.