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K-State kicks off critical stretch of games at Baylor

It’s a set of three games that will make or break the Wildcats’ season

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Baylor Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

We have said this before — that this is the string of games that will seal Kansas State’s fate come March.

Before, it was the Wildcats’ slate of games that included road matchups with Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Tennessee and home tilts with West Virginia and TCU. Three losses.

But now — now it’s reckoning time for K-State (15-7, 4-5 Big 12), which faces a trio of consecutive games against three Top-10 opponents. It starts Saturday at No. 2 Baylor (20-2, 7-2).

The second-ranked Bears and Wildcats will tip off 2 p.m. Saturday in Waco, Texas on ESPNews.

This matchup is also one we’ve seen before, though not in Waco yet this season. Xavier Sneed netted a triple to hand K-State the lead at the 10-minute mark of the second half Jan. 14 in Manhattan, but the Bears took advantage of an inexplicable Bruce Weber timeout and dominated the rest of the way.

Needless to say, it doesn’t get any easier for the Wildcats. They last won at the Ferrell Center in March 2013, when Rodney McGruder nailed a 3 at the buzzer. That green-and-gold arena often spells doom for K-State.

But Weber isn’t ruling anything out.

“I told the guys last night: it’s a great opportunity. You can do something special,” Weber said Thursday in the Big 12 coaches teleconference. “It’s possible. We’re good enough. We’ve played with everybody.

“You can’t fear it. You’ve just got to go at it.”

That will be the challenge for K-State, which knows Saturday’s tilt with Baylor is only the beginning of a taxing three-game stretch.

The Wildcats’ previous three games don’t appear to engender much momentum, either. K-State is three days removed from an 86-80 overtime loss to TCU in Manhattan, preceded by road losses to Iowa State and Tennessee.

Still, even knowing the weapons the Bears will throw at his squad, Weber says his team has a shot Saturday afternoon.

“I hope we do a little better execution against their zone,” he said. “It’s a tough zone because of their length. It’s a different configuration.”

The Bears have made their defense the bedrock of their success this season. They give up a Big 12-low 61.7 points per game, and junior center Johnathan Motley, who stands 6’10, averages 16.2 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.

Add 7-footer Jo Lual Acuil in the mix, and it’s not hard to understand how Baylor out-rebounded K-State 37-24 in the teams’ first meeting in January.

It all amounts to a zone defense feared by most teams, though Baylor won’t enter Saturday’s contest with much more momentum than K-State. The Bears dropped a 73-68 decision to No. 3 Kansas in Lawrence on Wednesday.

“Human nature, you’re always going to be disappointed,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “You’re going to be down, and if you’re not, you’re not a competitor. You’ve got to pick yourself back up.”

K-State will likely need sharp outings from Wesley Iwundu and Dean Wade to have a shot, two forwards who combined for just 12 points in Wednesday’s loss to TCU. They combined for 11 in the Baylor loss.

Drew is expecting the best from K-State, though.

“Coach Weber always does a great job getting his guys ready to play,” Drew said. “His teams always compete. They’re always fundamentally sound. They don’t beat themselves — you have to beat them.”

K-State has a home matchup with Kansas on Monday and will visit West Virginia the following Saturday — but first, Baylor Saturday afternoon.

Indeed, nothing is easy in the Big 12. Especially for teams vying for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.