We got to see just how good this Kansas State team could be on Saturday against No. 12 West Virginia.
Freshman DaJuan Gordon, brought the intensity and some great shooting to lead the Cats to their best first half of the season. Veterans Cartier Diarra and Xavier Sneed ensured it didn’t slip away as Kansas State stumbled, then closed out an 84-68 win in impressive fashion.
It’s no surprise this group is still a little too young to play at its highest level for 40 minutes, and Cartier Diarra made far too many mistakes for a veteran point guard. Nonetheless, his career-high 25 points, including 16 in the second haf, carried the Cats down the stretch when the rest of the offense went cold. Senior Xavier Sneed added 16 points to complement 15 from D Gordon (13 in the first half without a miss) as Kansas State scored more than 70 in a Big 12 game for the first time since crushing Oklahoma State last February.
Kansas State’s offense started in spurts, beginning with two layups sandwiched around a steal for Xavier Sneed. West Virginia responded with a 7-0 run, including a 3 from 16% 3-point shooter Jordan McCabe, and there was a sense of “here we go again” at Bramlage.
Fortunately, D Gordon and his friends had some other ideas. Cartier Diarra hit a deep 3 to tie the game at 11, then Gordon hit a pair over the next two minutes to make a 9-0 while Kansas State’s defense clamped down on the Mountaineers.
Inconsistent whistles on both ends and some foul trouble threatened to bring down the Wildcats, especially when Xavier Sneed went to the bench with two fouls with 11:52 left. Fortunately, Bruce recognized his normal rules shouldn’t apply to the one senior who’s shown some quality leadership this season, and it paid off immediately when Sneed scored five quick points after returning to the court with 5:43 left.
That combined with one of D Gordon’s four (!) first-half steals seemed to ignite the Kansas State offense, which kept right on rolling even when Sneed went back to the bench. Montavius Murphy hit one of the more ridiculous shots you’ll see over two defenders while falling down from 8 feet away, Antonio Gordon had a fun transition dunk, and Cartier Diarra said “thank you very much” when two West Virginia defenders graciously parted to create a wide open lane to the basket.
Gordon even hit another three to cap off a perfect 13-point first half from the field and K-State went into halftime on a 16-4 run, good enough to open up a 42-25 lead. It would have been even worse if not for West Virginia’s ferocious offensive rebounding, which yielded 9 second-chance points on 12 offensive rebounds.
That momentum carried over into the second half as Kansas State held West Virginia scoreless for nearly four minutes and stretched its lead to 23 points by the first media timeout. Levi Stockard even got involved with a strong layup in traffic.
Sadly, this remarkable display of basketball disappeared quite quickly. Six turnovers in six possessions helped West Virginia go on a 15-0 run and cut a 24-point lead down to 8 shortly after the midway point of the second half.
Cartier Diarra’s 3-pointer hardly made up for his carelessness with the basketball, and West Virginia took advantage of suddenly getting some open looks on the perimeter against lackluster K-State defense. Bruce even tried to play some zone. It did not work.
Fortunately, the Mountaineers missed some wide open looks, Carti hit another big three, and the Cats actually made some free throws to stretch the lead back to 69-54 with 5:14 left.
From there West Virginia stayed at arm’s length, and we even got to see a dunk from Makol Mawien before he fouled out. It took a minute, but K-State figured out how to pass the ball to beat the Mountaineers’ fullcourt pressure, which has certainly erased leads in a hurry against better teams than the Wildcats before.
This one doesn’t quite feel like last year, when a huge comeback against West Virginia unlocked the potential of a team that would go on to win a Big 12 regular season title. That doesn’t mean it’s not a much-needed confidence boost for the Wildcats as they entered perhaps the toughest portion of their schedule, starting with the dreaded trip to Lawrence on Tuesday.
Hopefully this isn’t like the 2015-16’s team stunning win over No. 1 Oklahoma, which preceded five losses over the next six games. It seems as though Bruce is slowly learning where the pieces fit on this team, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be able to solve inconsistency issues overnight.
3 in the key
3 freshman need to be starting. Today’s monster game from D Gordon only confirmed what we already knew about why he deserves Mike McGuirl’s spot. Montavious Murphy, of course, has already seen some time as a starter, and his energy continues to be great even if he’s still searching for his shot a bit. The least obvious choice is Antonio Gordon, but the 6-9 forward provided a nice spark with five straight points in the second half, including a baseline 3, and his athleticism means a lot of potential on the defensive end. It’s time for all three of these guys to begin the game on the court, not because they’re young and it’s time to look toward the future in a lost season, but because they’ve earned it over Makol Mawien and Levi Stockard. If we’re really lucky, a change will light a fire under Mak to get him to live up to his potential.
Kansas State’s ball pressure was outstanding. West Virginia’s guards looked bothered most of the day against great on-ball defending from Kansas State’s backcourt. The Mountaineers committed 18 turnovers — 14 in the first half — and guards Miles McBride, Jordan McCabe and Jermaine Haley scored just 18 points combined, five below their season average. More importantly, that often prevented them from getting the ball inside, where Oscar Tshiebwe (8 points on 4-5 shooting) and Derek Culver (8 on 2-4 shooting) held a decided advantage over K-State’s bigs.
The transition game works. Halfcourt offense will continue to be a problem so long as Diarra is careless with the basketball and the Wildcats struggle to find guys who can create their own shot. That in turn makes it all the more important for Kansas State to find quick, easy buckets when possible. It happened a lot today, as the Cats turned those aforementioned 18 turnovers into 28 points. Guys like Sneed, Diarra, David Sloan and D Gordon all looked ready to run, even after defensive rebounds on some occasions. More of that, please.