It’s time to move on to basketball, folks. Sure, there are four football games remaining, and bowl eligibility is still in play. But the optimism has drained out of all but the most zealous supporters at this point, and no matter what happens in November, the prevalent feeling seems to be that the team is just playing out the string. Hopes and dreams were dented at the hands of Mississippi State, diminished by West Virginia and Texas, and demolished once and for all by Oklahoma.
Basketball is the new hope. Who had that written in the collective consciousness of K-State fans a year ago?
Bruce Weber’s team rides the momentum of last year’s Elite 8 run to pre-season rankings of No. 12 in the Associated Press poll and No. 11 in the Coaches poll. Are those expectations warranted? Some—including Coach Weber himself—have suggested that the Wildcats, who return everyone of consequence except role-player Amaad Wainright from last year, should be ranked even higher.
Should they? The point merits discussion.
First, assume for a moment that the tournament bracket had played to seed, and K-State’s guys got the life slowly, mercilessly choked out of them in the second round by Virginia. Would the Wildcats be on anybody’s Top-15 list today?
Though K-State was one of the final eight teams playing last spring, as we all know, the tournament does not necessarily identify the nation’s best teams. Virginia lost in the first round. Was it only 61st best, then? Of course not. Was Loyola-Chicago really one of the four best in the land, or did divine intervention smile on Sister Jean’s rosary beads during those first four tourney games? The twists and turns of tournament play favor those who catch fire at the right time, as well as those who catch breaks that have nothing to do with their own play.
K-State caught such a break when Virginia became the first No. 1 seed in history to lose to a 16-seed. In its role as the metaphorical David, The University of Maryland-Baltimore County managed to take down Goliath. But the Retrievers were always unlikely to have enough stones in their pouch to knock off multiple Power-5 schools. K-State was the lucky Philistine that only needed to vanquish them to move on, rather than arming its own slingshot for a long-shot chance against the Cavaliers. Bruce and his guys held their stone in reserve for another behemoth and managed to sling a perfect shot at the temple of the Kentucky Wildcats.
K-State deserves credit, certainly. It is not as if they beat nothing but pushovers to reach the Elite 8. Creighton, with former Wildcat Marcus Foster, was favored, but the ‘Cats handled them with relative ease. Beating NBA talent-laden Kentucky—especially the way K-State did it, with five guys shorter than six-foot-four on the floor to finish the game—is the stuff of legends. That they accomplished this with very little contribution from Dean Wade, their statistically and observably best player, makes it even more memorable. Though the game matched two Power-5 teams, the roster disparity, exacerbated by Wade’s injury, made K-State’s win feel like a monumental upset.
Those two tournament performances showed us what this K-State team could be. But you can’t help feeling that maybe the games turned out like they did primarily because they featured the very best version of Xavier Sneed and the completely unexpected emergence of Mike McGuirl. In spite of their heroic game elevations, the run had to be sustained by a gutsy late-game performance none of us will ever forget by Barry Brown. Remember early in the league season, when Barry forced an off-balance 3-pointer at the buzzer rather than challenging KU’s length off the bounce? Everyone, here and elsewhere, crushed him for it. But he learned the lesson. Against the even more imposing length and athleticism of the Kentucky front line, he abandoned fear to drive, made the improbable lay-up, and changed his team’s fortunes for not just the tournament, but for this season, too.
Without that one play, what would K-State be ranked to start 2018-2019? Top-20, maybe? “Others receiving votes?” Would the ‘Cats really be a much worse team if PJ Washington could have extended three more inches to block Barry’s shot? Or if he had made a few more than 8-of-20 from the stripe for Kentucky? Or if Dean Wade had not been able to gut his way through eight minutes of playing time on one good foot and score the crucial four points he contributed?
Games are made of circumstances, of course, and collectively they determine the outcome. Circumstance smiled on K-State that night, because what control did they have over Washington’s free-throw percentage or his reach? How much say did they have on Wade’s injury? It was critical that the team play well, of course. Apart from fouling too much, they did. But so often against teams like Kentucky, merely playing well is not enough.
In the regional final against Loyola-Chicago, even a run of lucky fortune could not have saved the ‘Cats. They broke down defensively, could not find good shots, and generally regressed to the mean for their season, missing a golden opportunity to make the Final Four. Tournament play sucks that way.
All of this goes to express the truism that people tend to over-value tournament success when guessing at a team’s chances the following year. Too many variables affect tournament results to make any sweeping conclusions about the participants. As the hopeful narrative goes, the tournament showed all of us (and more importantly, showed the team itself) what K-State could be when all of the players and coaches bring their best to the floor on any given night. And having tasted the sweet air so near the summit, they will redouble their efforts, come out stronger and more confident this season, and make an even better run.
Maybe they will, if circumstance favors them again.
Off-season reports have been encouraging, but we should remember first and foremost what this squad was during the entirety of last year. They finished a relatively pedestrian 25-12 overall, 10-8 in Big 12 Conference play. That was good for fourth place in the league, but it was a pretty distant fourth. They had the one-point loss in Allen Fieldhouse, but including the third contest with KU in the Big 12 tournament, 5 of the 6 other games against the league’s three best teams (Kansas, Texas Tech and West Virginia) were double-digit losses. The February 3rd game in Morgantown was a 38-point humiliation (89-51). Scoring points was painfully hard far too often last year. Ending defensive possessions seemed impossible sometimes, given the squad’s staggering inability to secure rebounds.
Still, in the end of the season and with Dean Wade seriously hobbled, they played two terrific games under the bright lights of the NCAA tournament. There is a pretty clear ceiling (Creighton and Kentucky games) and a distant and dismal floor (West Virginia) for this team. The optimistic hope is that tournament success and its attendant confidence boost raises the floor of game results and makes the ceiling a more consistently reachable. But is that realistic for a team that, quite honestly, wound up looking like something more than the sum of its parts during NCAA tournament play? They overachieved, which is why it had a Cinderella feeling. Either that, or they underachieved in the regular season.
Maybe you think this is needless dumping of ice-water on reasonable expectations. But consider this. As a team last year, K-State averaged 71.1 points per game, good for 248th in the country. The Wildcats offset this by giving up only 67.0, which was 46th. In an era in which success is built largely on 3-point efficiency, K-State hit only 34.1% of its tries (221st). They were 197th in rebounding and fouled more than all but 32 teams in the country. The only statistical category in which K-State was elite, in fact, was steals (8th). Does any of that strike you as data supporting a top-10 ranking?
If you remember the ‘Cats being better in league play, you misremember. K-State ranked 10th (which is last in the numerically challenged Big 12, of course) in these seven statistical categories: field goal attempts, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, total rebounds, blocked shots, total points scored, and average points per game. They were 8th or 9th in four other categories.
On the other side of the ledger, they were top-3 in only three categories: Steals (139, 1st), 2-point percentage (.530, 2nd), and overall field goal percentage (.468, 3rd). How did they win despite these statistical anomalies? Maybe Bruce Weber stole Bill Snyder’s wizard cap. It would explain so, so much on both sides of the athletic complex.
A more likely explanation has something to do with intangibles and the play of K-State’s best upperclassmen. Bruce has three productive seniors, and two of them are very good college basketball players.
Dean Wade (this year’s pre-season Big 12 player of the year) emerged in conference play to lead the team in scoring at 18.8 points per game. He averaged 16.2 for the full season, after averaging only 11.8 in his career. To announce his presence, he shot 13-16, 6-8 from three, for 34 points on the road at a notoriously difficult venue against Iowa State. If newfangled statistics are your thing, he had a Player Efficiency Rating of 26.7 and was good for 2.4 Offensive Win Shares and 0.7 Defensive Win Shares (3.1 total) for the year. His Effective Field Goal percentage, which takes into account the enhanced value of made 3-pointers, was .606.
Barry Brown (pre-season Big 12 first team) averaged 15.9 points per game on the season, 18.6 in conference play. He also averaged 3.2 assists (up from 2.4 for his career) and shot 44.8% from the floor, after averaging 41% for his career. His Player Efficiency Rating was 18.3, and he earned 1.7 Offensive Win Shares and 0.5 Defensive Win Shares (2.2 total). Barry is more valuable than his numbers, though. Like Jacob Pullen, he is the pulse of the team. If you believe the narrative, Wade improved, in part, because Barry convinced him it was time. He has been described as the undisputed leader of this team, and most would have known that to be the case without being told.
We know what to expect from these two, and it’s a great place to start. But bigger, loftier expectations like deserving a top-10 ranking depend on a host of variables concerning the supporting cast. Among them:
1. Is the Creighton game/Kentucky game Xavier Sneed everyday X now? A third musketeer of that caliber could propel this team to incredible heights.
2. Will Kamau Stokes return to form for his senior year, and will he play within the role that best serves the collective goals of the team? Kamau has had incredible nights in his career (24 points against North Carolina in Kansas City, 23 against Arizona State in Vegas). But K-State lost both of those games. He’s an enigmatic streak shooter who sometimes forces shots. If Wade, Brown and Sneed are playing well, nobody should be forcing shots.
3. Is the Mike McGuirl that we saw in the tournament the real Mike McGuirl, and will we see that player regularly this season? He and Sneed together present an athletic duo on the wings that could be a tremendously effective and fun showpiece to watch.
4. Can Cartier Diarra take the next step? The redshirt sophomore saved the season when thrust into starting point guard duties after Kam’s injury last year. He is instinctive and at times as electric as both Sneed and McGuirl. Will another year of recovery from his knee injury make him even more explosive?
5. Do the bigs (Makol Mawien, Levi Stockard, James Love, Nigel Shadd and newcomer Austin Trice) contribute in the paint? Among things K-State struggled mightily to do last year were scoring easy buckets in half-court sets and clearing the boards on the defensive end. All of the big guys have bulked up in the off-season, and Trice is an enticing, athletic newcomer from the junior college ranks. Will increased physical presence and a renewed focus on rebounding effort be enough to resolve the team’s most glaring weakness? Or will the platoon of bigs just be 25 collective fouls to give each night?
To be the team they want to be—the team that an increasing number of people think they are—several of these unknowns must break positively. In other words, the complimentary pieces have to do their part, and do it consistently. Otherwise, K-State will be the same nice squad it was last year, capable of pulling an upset or two on the way to bowing out of the tournament without reaching the promised land.
This is not intended to throw a blanket over K-State’s lofty pre-season aspirations. The Wildcats should aspire to greatness. The pieces are there to achieve it. But doing it is not automatic. Not just because they made a nice run for two weeks in March and April. That’s over. The journey begins again now, and it starts from scratch.
Let’s have a moment of honesty, here: Do you believe the pieces returning this year are demonstrably better than the team Frank Martin put on the floor in 2010, fresh off K-State’s Elite 8 showing the previous season? That squad started league play 1-4. Things were so dire that then-assistant coach Brad Underwood installed the pinch post offense with only eight games remaining in the regular season and, by some accounts, saved a team consisting of Pullen, Curtis Kelly, Jamar Samuels, Shane Southwell and a young Rodney McGruder from missing the tournament altogether.
Pre-season rankings are for talk only. Starting with Friday night’s exhibition contest against Pittsburg State, the real story of this season will be written. It should be a good story, though probably not with a completely happy ending. Those are so cruelly rare in college basketball.
But don’t let that heartless truth ruin the fun. And don’t pin your judgment to subjective, guesswork expectations, either. This bunch is talented, likable, experienced and deep. Even Coach Weber’s trademark awkwardness, through the miraculous cocoon of winning, has morphed into a kind of endearing, colloquial charm. Whatever the ultimate verdict on the season, there will surely be moments, both joyful and maddening, to remember. We should all enjoy the ride.