This was always going to be a tall order. Even without match-up nightmare Udoka Azubuike to man the post, Kansas (26-7, 11-5 Big 12) still had four all-conference players on the floor. The task for K-State (22-11, 10-8) got harder mid afternoon Friday, when it was announced that one of the Wildcats’ two all-Big 12 performers, Dean Wade, would be sidelined with a foot injury.
The chore became positively monumental when, less than two minutes into the game, Kansas’s Devonte Graham got both hands into the eye of K-State’s other all-league player, Barry Brown, on an attempted K-State break. Brown rolled and writhed on the floor, went to the locker room, and never re-entered the game. His eyelid was swollen, and Holly Rowe reported he had blood in the corner of his right eye.
Makol Mawien, Cartier Diarra, Xavier Sneed, Kamau Stokes and a cast of little-used backups gave game effort, but even when they fought back to make the contest close, it never really felt as if they would get over the top and win.
Case in point: K-State whittled a 16-point KU lead all the way down to 53-51 after a Xaiver Sneed dunk at the 10:20 mark of the second half. On the other end, the ‘Cats defended well and rebounded a missed three-point attempt by Marcus Garrett. They never got the chance to pull even, though. Diarra turned the ball over in the back-court, and Garrett made a lay-up to stretch KU’s lead back to four.
K-State would cut it to four again a few minutes later, but would never get closer again.
KU did not play dominant basketball, by anyone’s standards. They particularly struggled to defend the paint, as Mawien poured in 29 points on 13-19 shooting. Sneed added 12, though he shot only 4-for-13 on the night. Amaad Wainright gave K-State a lift, with nine points (4-5 FG), and Diarra filled up the stat sheet in both good and bad ways with nine points (4-7 FG), four rebounds and four assists, but also six turnovers and five fouls.
Mike McGuirl played 21 minutes, by far the most of his season. He had four points and four rebounds, and his athletic potential tantalizes, though lack of experience shows.
All four of KU’s all-conference selections scored double figures. Malik Newman had 22 (8-14 FG), Graham had 15 (3-11), Mykhailiuk (officially the last time I will have to spell that guy’s name, thank you very much) had 12, and LaGerald Vick had 10. Three other players scored 8 for the Jayhawks.
K-State lost the rebounding battle 28-25, and turnovers were even at 13 apiece. But KU was 11-28 from three, while the ‘Cats were only 2-for-13. That looks like the difference in the game. But KU had a gear (or two) that it never had to find to pull away.
K-State now awaits its tournament fate. With Mawien suddenly emerging as a credible third scoring threat, if Brown and Wade can return and play at full speed, the squad should have a chance to win a game, at least. And it’s tournament time. So, dare to dream.
Three in the Key
- Mawien was a man. Again. In his last five games, the sophomore post has scored 8, 9, 14, 16 and 29. He has gained confidence. He has played poised basketball and displayed an array of solid moves to create space and angles in the paint. He defended Brodziansky very well on Thursday, and denied post-entry passes against KU’s bigs (admittedly, backups who are nowhere near as tough as Azubuike) tonight. K-State won lots of games without much production from the five. If Mawien’s play over the past couple of weeks becomes a starting point for better things to come, the Wildcats’ hopes for the future—both in the NCAA tournament this year and over the full season next year—look far, far rosier.
- No back down in the backups. Okay, KU looked disinterested at times, as if the Jayhawk players knew they could flip a switch and pull away at any moment. But Wainright, McGuirl, and the starters who are normally role players buckled down and gave great effort. If someone other than Mawien had been able to consistently knock down shots, KU might have had to double-clutch and search for that upper gear to put this one in the win column.
- Health is the headline. Early murmurs today suggested Dean Wade has a stress fracture. That would be catastrophic, if true. Now, Barry looks like he lost a single sucker-punch fight in Aggieville. Coach Weber said before the game that Wade wanted to play, which may be a good sign. Amateur doctors and fans who stayed in Holiday Inn Express last night have to think Barry’s swollen eye will not sideline him too long. Right? Exiting the Big 12 tournament early is disappointing, but given the health situation, the extra day to recover may be a blessing. Now, we’ll all hold our breath until we find out how close to full strength the team will be for a first-round game on Thursday or Friday of next week.
From pre-season 8th to solo 4th, it has been a fun—though sometimes frustrating—season. The best thing about it? There is more to come.