Fifteen games in and more than a week into January, No. 25 Kansas State remains on the hunt for a marquee win.
The Wildcats have had their chances, though. They let what would have been a solid resume-builder slip away in New York against Maryland Nov. 26, and again Jan. 3 in Lawrence against Kansas. The ending we all know.
But it’s all in the past, and as head coach Bruce Weber has instilled in his team since the loss in Allen Fieldhouse, K-State must turn the page. The Wildcats are 13-2 overall and 2-1 in the Big 12, yet still without a win convincing in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
Their next shot arrives Tuesday night in Lubbock, Texas.
K-State and Texas Tech, though different teams, are both in need of the win a victory over one would give the other. The Red Raiders didn’t get a shot at a decent team until Big 12 play began, when they fell on the road to Iowa State.
With the exception of the Maryland loss, the same could be said of Kansas State.
With that in mind, on surface level, the squads are a good match for each other. And they are. K-State stands alone as the only Big 12 team with five players averaging double figures in points, but Tech isn’t far behind with four. As of Monday, the Wildcats, with an RPI of 50, are barely ahead of Texas Tech’s 56.
If that wasn’t enough, both teams are only a few days removed from a loss at Kansas — though K-State’s takes the cake for most controversial.
“I told them to come out angry; come out pissed off,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said after his team’s 75-64 win over Oklahoma on Saturday.
So what separates the two teams? Not much. The Wildcats and Red Raiders are nearly identical in most statistical categories, though Tech has K-State beat in the free-throw department by about six percentage points.
Beyond that, it’s hard to draw differences these teams. If K-State has been plagued by anything thus far, though, it’s been finishing games. The Wildcats’ loss to Maryland could have been avoided with better free throw shooting in the final seconds, and if not for a 9-of-10 mark from the stripe Dec. 30, K-State may have let Texas complete a comeback.
“That’s the maturity you talk about; the consistency, the preparation,” Weber said. “If we’re going to continue to make progress and be competing for the top half of the league and for a championship, you’ve got to be consistent.”
It’s one of the few categories in which K-State has struggled this season. Nearly all the Wildcats’ offensive numbers are up from a year ago.
The only problem for K-State is that so are Texas Tech’s.
Junior guard Keenan Evans leads his Red Raiders with 13.6 points per game, while senior forward Anthony Livingston posts 12.5 points a game. Big man Zach Smith averages 12.4 points and 7.9 rebounds per contest as well.
It’s a lineup of which K-State forward Wesley Iwundu knows the potential, especially after Texas Tech knocked off then-No. 7 West Virginia in Lubbock Jan. 3.
“It’ll be a pretty big game against a pretty good team,” Iwundu said. “They’ve got a lot of good bigs down there, pretty good high-IQ guys.... It’ll be pretty competitive, which is the good thing about this league — you get a chance to go out and prove yourself versus good competition every game.”
Iwundu’s 12.5 points paces his K-State team, a stat padded by a versatile 5.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. Saturday’s win over OU was particularly emblematic of Iwundu’s numbers and do-it-all capabilities, as the Houston native totaled 16 points, five rebounds and three assists in the win.
Weber knows the gem he has in Iwundu, too.
“I like his versatility. And he made plays down the stretch,” Weber said. “He wants to take it over when we need him. At the end of the Kansas game, he said ‘give me the ball, coach.’ So that’s a good thing.”
K-State’s Barry Brown, D.J. Johnson, Kamau Stokes and Dean Wade — the other four starters, in addition to Iwundu — all average upward of 10 points per game, making for a team whose versatility Weber has lauded time and again.
But it’s the Big 12 now, after both K-State and Texas Tech played relatively light non-conference schedules. If the Wildcats are to secure a signature road win, Tuesday night presents a golden opportunity for Weber & Co.
But it won’t be handed to them — nothing in this conference is.
“Coach (Chester) Frazier wrote it on the scouting report: remember every game is as important as the next,” Weber said. “They’re good. We’re going to have to play well. It’s a huge game for us.”