Bruce Weber called the opening of Big 12 play “scary.” Starting league play on the road in Hilton Coliseum, with a starting lineup of three freshmen, one sophomore and a lone senior will give any coach reason for concern. But the Wildcats played to their strengths to build a double-digit lead Tuesday night, then displayed enough poise late to preserve a 74-65 road victory over Iowa State to begin conference play.
The game was even early on, with Iowa State holding a 14-13 lead at the 13:48 mark of the first half. But the Wildcats would get two three-point baskets from Carlton Linguard Jr. and another from Rudi Williams as part of a 13-0 run that put them ahead 26-14 before the under-8 timeout, and they would never trail again.
It might have been better for K-State if everyone had stopped shooting 3-pointers after the Williams make. That would be their last of the evening, as they finished 4-23 (17.4%) from deep. Fortunately, the Cats were much better in the lane, as 7-foot freshman Davion Bradford converted alley-oops, finished with a dunk on a secondary fast-break, and knocked down all four of his free throw attempts to finish with 14 points on 5-7 shooting from the floor.
Excellent free throw shooting was actually a theme on the evening, and it was the difference in the game. Sophomore DaJuan Gordon found his way to the line eleven times. He made every one of them. Add in his two field goals (on 8 attempts), both of which were spectacles of physics-defying acrobatic madness, and he led the team with 15 points. He also grabbed eleven rebounds, and would have had a double-double even if he had never made a shot from the field.
Overall, K-State made 26 of 29 free throws, good for 89.7 percent. In fact, of the six Cats who got to the line, only Williams (3-6) missed any attempts. It was clear late in the game that the Cyclones did not want to foul Gordon. But almost nobody was a good option for the opposition to foul tonight.
Iowa State, meanwhile, did not shoot a single free throw in the first half. They made 11 of 16 attempts overall, good for 68.8%. The 15-point disparity at the line more than explains the final outcome.
The Wildcats also dominated on the glass, grabbing 35 rebounds to Iowa State’s 25. That led to an 11-2 advantage on second-chance points.
Both of those advantages were necessary to offset 17 turnovers, atrocious outside shooting, and a furious rally late by Iowa State. The Cyclones made a couple of late three-pointers, and Rasir Bolton took the initiative in the closing minutes, finishing with 19 points. But K-State’s effort, balance, and poise (yes, poise; they finished the game without their only senior, McGuirl on the floor, after he fouled out) allowed them to close the game without ever yielding the lead.
Add it all up, and Kansas State—picked to finish last in the Big 12 and by virtue of being one of only four teams to play on this first night of league action—starts off the year sharing the conference lead with Oklahoma. Considering where the Wildcats were a week ago, after and embarrassing loss to Division II Fort Hays State out of the MIAA, the turnaround could be viewed as a surprise. And though the first game in an 18-game juggernaut tells us little about the ultimate outcome of the season, forgive us for celebrating a road league win that the team led for nearly 38 of 40 minutes. If the squad can keep improving, clean up the turnovers and just play steady basketball, maybe the growing pains won’t be as pronounced as K-State fans had feared.
In addition to Gordon and Braford, Both Williams and Linguard reached double figures, with 10 each. The Cats also got 8 from Selton Miguel and Nijel Pack, and 7 from McGuirl before he fouled out. We may be witnessing a star emerge (more on that in a moment), but until that happens, contributions up and down the roster will be necessary for K-State to be competitive.
Three (+1) in the Key
- The story of this game starts with Bradford. Though Iowa State, like K-State, is young and inexperienced, one of their more accomplished returning players is Solomon Young. He has tormented K-State in the past, but tonight, Bradford outplayed him. The freshman post found open looks at the rim and scored 14 points about as efficiently as anyone could realistically expect. Aside from his play, it is good to see that the moment was not too big for him. Young got 8 points, but only managed six shots in 31 minutes of play. We suggested after the Milwaukee game that Bradford was an intriguing prospect. Color us even more interested after tonight’s performance.
- K-State mostly played well, but there were deficiencies, as well. The kind of deficiencies that could sink the Wildcats against better competition and that would have threatened to do so tonight, had they not been so good in so many other areas. Three-point shooting—including shot selection as well as shooting percentage—must improve. Nineteen misses from outside is far too many, and the long rebounds that result will lead to fast-break points at the other end of the floor against more athletic teams. This is a slashing, dishing, dunking and getting-to-the-free-throw-line team. Until Pack finds his stroke again, at least. Seventeen turnovers is also too many, especially as offense will get more difficult against better defensive teams. Though K-State scored 1.04 points per possession tonight, such efficiency has not been the norm. Feel good about the win not only because it is a win, but also because the Cats accomplished it with relative ease despite not being perfect. They won by 9, and they left margin on the floor. There is room for continued growth.
- Nijel Pack is still one of the best players on this team, but he’s in a shooting slump. The outside stroke that looked so infallible in the first few games has deserted him, as he missed all of his seven long casts in Ames. But he still made plays to impact the outcome, including a steal and nice lay-up to beat pressure when Iowa State had cut the lead to single digits. Bradford has emerged. Selton Miguel has come on strong. If Pack can get back to knocking down open shots again, K-State fans might be able to expect to upset some upper teams and could—could—defy pessimistic preseason expectations.
- We wondered earlier today whether “Hilton magic” was a thing without the crowd there to spur it on. It was not. The strange season seems stranger still. What effect might the limited crowds have in Stillwater, Morgantown, and (dare we say?) Lawrence? Crowd energy impacts basketball games, without a doubt. In close games, the shot of adrenaline a lively crowd imparts can be the difference between getting to a loose ball, yanking down a rebound, or locking down on defense. Teams will have to manufacture their own energy this season. If the Cats can stay in games, they may be able to pull more road upsets. How about that? A week ago, we were all despair. Some of you thought K-State would not win a single league game. Don’t deny it; we heard you. Tonight? Optimism.