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K-State set to host top-ranked Baylor

The Wildcats will look to dethrone a No. 1 for the second straight season

NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Kansas State Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

The sun had set long ago, his team had just landed and the clock read 1:30 a.m., but Bruce Weber had a message for his Kansas State team.

The No. 25 Wildcats (13-3, 2-2) were just hours removed from a 66-65 loss to Texas Tech, yet another edition of K-State crumbling in close games. The last-second loss marked its third this season alone. They account for all the Wildcats’ three losses.

But at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, the K-State head coach gathered his team and told it this:

“You make a decision: you can be the victim, or you can do something about it.”

The message’s results have yet to be seen, but the Wildcats will get a crack at redemption Saturday afternoon against No. 1 Baylor.

K-State and Baylor are slated to tip off 3:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPNU.

“I can sit there and just blame everybody else, or I can do something about it,” Weber said. “That’s the biggest thing.”

Hosting a team at the peak of the college basketball mountain is a far cry from K-State’s last pair of games, a home win over 6-9 Oklahoma and the loss to Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas. But it’s an experience with which the Wildcats aren’t unfamiliar: they dethroned then-No. 1 Oklahoma last season in Manhattan.

Though this year’s Baylor team and last year’s Sooners squad differ in several ways, the fact alone that K-State has beaten a top-ranked team as recently as it has gives Weber confidence heading into Saturday.

“We’ve been in big games. We were on a big stage (against Oklahoma last year),” Weber said. “We played Maryland in the Barclays. It’s a great opportunity.”

That Maryland game on Nov. 26, however, began with Melo Trimble beating K-State in the final seconds, and has now reared its head in mid-January and become a full-fledged emergency for K-State. The Wildcats have just the three losses, but they have all come in similar fashion. First the Maryland game Nov. 26, then the controversial Kansas loss Jan. 3, then the loss at Texas Tech Tuesday night.

Weber likes the way his team has played in the moments leading up to those late-game crises — but he knows clutch time is where the Wildcats have often melted.

“It hurts. It hurts my heart; hurts in my gut,” Weber said. “Hopefully we do a better job as a team, and not (play) to where it comes down the last play at the end.”

But that won’t cut it against Baylor. The Wildcats will need to play a complete game to upend the Bears, a team that has knocked off then-No. 4 Oregon, then-No. 24 Michigan State, then-No. 10 Louisville, then-No. 7 Xavier and Iowa State.

That will likely require the services of forwards Wesley Iwundu and D.J. Johnson, seniors who contributed a healthy amount to K-State’s win over Oklahoma last season. Iwundu tallied 22 points, and Johnson added 12 in the victory.

Include sophomore Dean Wade in there, too, who also helped his Wildcats upset the Sooners. K-State will likely feed off that trio on Saturday against a Baylor team that has grown infamous for its zone defense. The Bears give up a Big 12-low 60.2 points per game, aided in large part by junior forward Johnathan Motley who averages 15.3 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.

On the defensive front, Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. is a formidable presence underneath with 10.6 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game, the latter of which is tops in the Big 12.

“You’ve got to make shots against them,” Weber said, “but you’ve also got to get it into the paint to create open opportunities. It’s really four guys out on the perimeter, and they’re large; they keep their arms up, and they do a good job of rotating.”

But the good news for K-State is that Baylor fell for the first time Tuesday, an 89-68 defeat at No. 10 West Virginia. The Bears turned it over 29 times in the loss alone and made just four of the 14 triples they hoisted.

Baylor coach Scott Drew recognized it all, too.

“We all realized we didn’t play like we’d liked to. We had to give West Virginia a lot of credit for making that the case, because they definitely caused us to not play well also,” Drew said. “But again, I think we have enough vets on the team, and they understand the importance of (moving) on to the next game.”

If Drew’s words hold up, K-State could be in for a long day Saturday afternoon.

The Wildcats have their guns, though, and they’ve often green-lighted Iwundu, Wade, Barry Brown, Kamau Stokes, Xavier Sneed and Carlbe Ervin from the 3-point line — where they’ve been especially lethal this season.

That’s what Weber is hoping for, at least.

Said Weber: “If you can get the ball inside the defense, then (you can) make outside (shots).”