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When Scoring 58 Points Means You Suck At Defense

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...And Other Holiday Thoughts

100% of our upperclassmen are in this photo...which explains some things.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the holiday season, which means one thing: finding all the ways can we find to kvetch about the Kansas State Wildcats men’s basketball team! So, grab yourself a hot cocoa (feel free to add in your sauce of choice), pull up alongside the fire, and watch me unwrap our holiday gifts in the virtual living room.

Shiny New Toys

Nijel Pack

Let’s start here. Of the eight newcomers to the squad this season, freshman G Nijel Pack has been as delightful surprise. Watching him from the opening tip versus Drake, we see a young point guard that is competent at handling the ball, keeps the ball moving, and relatively takes care of possession of the ball, holding on to a 3:2 A/TO ratio so far this season. The consensus four-star recruit plays quick and low to the ground, which allows him to be able to slide around very efficiently on the floor. A lot to like here... there’s a reason Bruce is putting the keys to the car in this kid’s hands.

And yes, that’s an entire paragraph about Nijel before we hit on probably the thing that excites me the most - the shooting stroke. Folks that are watching can confirm: Pack has a short, tight, “quiet” shooting stroke that just reeks of repeatability. What does that get you? It gets you nearly 60% from behind the arc on the season, with his worst game his most recent versus UMKC, where he connected on 3 of 6 from three. Overall, he’s shooting 50% from the floor on the season for nearly 12 points a game.

Pack needs to improve on the defensive end of the floor. While he plays competent on-ball defense - he moves his feet well and turns his hips effectively to slide with the ball handler - he’s been a little slow on defensive rotations (to be expected), and isn’t exceptional at anticipating passes in off-ball situations. Additionally - and this isn’t his fault - Nijel doesn’t possess the long wingspan that many “elite” defenders have, so he’s going to have to rely on foot quickness to apply defensive pressure, and being an elite off-ball defender may not be in the cards. That being said, with Weber being an old-school, defense-first coach, it should be expected that Pack can become a much better defender in short order.

Shooting

I know already this is going to be a controversial topic, because some of the K-State Faithful have this delusion that if you’re not shooting 86% from the floor, you’re a poor shooting team, your offense sucks, yadda, yadda. First, let’s talk about elite, then let’s set our baseline.

For “elite”, I’m not going to go any further than this year’s Gonzaga Bulldogs team. This team is built to absolutely destroy teams on the offensive end of the floor. They have a spectacular-shooting big in Drew Timme, and all-around scoring weapons in F Corey Kispert and G Jalen Suggs. I took some time to watch the game they hung a hundo on the Cheating Chickens down the road over the Thanksgiving holiday, and came away very impressed with their competence and efficiency scoring the ball. So how do they shoot it? 58.5% FG, 75.7% FT, and...only 30.8% from beyond the arc. Hm. Let’s look at another team: Villanova. Their 2018 Championship team shot it at a 52% clip from the floor, but looking at their 2016 Championship team: 46.7% FG, 34.4% 3PFG, 77.7% FT. In fact, looking across recent NCAA Champions, it appears that if you can hover around 50% FG, 37% 3PFG, 75% FT, you’re in the realm of “championship caliber”.

Now let’s talk about K-State. We know we had a rough season last year - no one is going to deny that. So let’s throw these stats out there as a floor: 41.4% FG, 31.3% 3PFG, 66.1% FT. But that’s not a baseline, is it? Let’s throw a couple of our best seasons in there: our Big 12 Championship season in 2019 (43.1% / 33.6% / 66.4%), our Elite Eight season from 2018 (47.2% / 34.4% / 74.3%), and just for good measure, our Big 12 Championship season in 2013 with Bruce coaching Martin’s players (43.6% / 36.3% / 68.9%). Hell - even the 07-08 season with Michael Beasley, Bill Walker, and Jacob Pullen put up 44.3% / 32.1% / 68.9%.

But a way-too-early-of-a-look shows us our current shooting rates are comparable if not better than the most successful seasons we’ve had in recent memory: 45.4% / 39.3% / 66.7%. Take away the four absolutely atrocious 3s we’ve taken that had no business being shot (three by DaJuan Gordon, one by Montavious Murphy), and it goes up to 46.7% / 42.1% / 66.7%. These guys can knock shots down when they’re available. That’s a lot of numbers, but the main takeaway is this: our shooting prowess appears to be at the better end of the scale for us over the past 15 years.

Overall Athleticism and Talent

There’s no doubt we’ve got some talent and tools to work with here. We’ve already talked about Pack above. Four-star G Selton Miguel (a big 6-4 with long arms) has the build and athleticism to be a truly elite defender capable of defending four, if not all five spots on the floor...but there’s some development needed there. Another four-star, C Davion Bradford, brings some beef into the paint with his 7-0, 250lb frame. G Luke Kasubke - supposedly a true knock-down shooter with some size (6-4) is currently out of commission through December with a foot injury, so we have that to look forward to in a couple of weeks. Even the UTEP transfer Kaosi Ezeagu (pronounced “Casey easy-AH-goo”, for those of us that haven’t figured it out yet) is showing a much needed spine in the middle, attempting to contest every shot at the rim with just shy of three blocks per game. Our key returning underclassmen - DG, Monty, and Antonio Gordon - also have raw but apparent skill; DaJuan has a nose for the ball on rebounds, and can be an effective slash/mid-range scorer (despite his atrocious 3P shot selection, he’s still averaging 11 and 7). Monty has honestly been disappointing so far - makes me wonder if he’s still got some lingering injury issues - but he’s one of the quicker posts on the roster, and showed an aggressive streak at times last season. AG is absolutely no Dean Wade, but he at least has the shooting ability to step out and force an interior defender to come out to him, stretching the floor. And while Mike McGuirl is a streaky shooter, he’s a streaky shooter - capable of pouring in shots from everywhere when he finds his range - and will do the dirty work, too. He’s snaring 4 rebounds a game, and sits at 2.7:1 A/TO ratio. Specifically, Rivals.com states:

Arguably, the best group that Bruce Weber has ever assembled in Manhattan...beginning of the season may be rough, but once role allocation sets in, KSU should make for a tough out during league play.

All in all, we’re not lacking for any specific skillset, and we’ve got good enough tools to be successful. Just need some time.

Youth

Let’s step back in time. Not too far, but what feels like a distant past. The season was 2015-16, and we just saw the nuclear meltdown and subsequent radioactivity-scarred landscape of K-State Basketball. Big Gip and Nino Williams graduated. Marcus Foster - gone. Jevon Thomas, gone. Malek Harris, Nigel Johnson, Tre Harris...gone, gone, and gone. In comes seven new players...some of whose names you might remember: Barry Brown, Kamau Stokes, Dean Wade. That team finished the season at 17-16, 5-13 in the conference, but it created a core of players that had some skill that played together for four years. Didn’t work out too bad in the long run.

Lumps Of Coal

Turnovers

This one falls squarely into the “I’m not happy, but I understand” realm. Through three games, K-State is completely lopsided on the turnover front, giving up the ball more than our opponent each game. We’re currently averaging 16.3 TO/gm compared to our opponents at 12.0. That’s more than four extra chances at scoring per game we’re giving our opponents...and while that doesn’t sound like a lot, here’s the staggering number: 8.3 of those turnovers we’re coughing up are steals - live-ball turnovers - which are being converted into points.

K-State has traditionally (well, throughout the Martin and Weber eras, at least) relied heavily on defensive pressure to create turnovers - especially those live-ball turnovers - then score off them. This season’s started off exactly the opposite, where we’re only grabbing just over three steals a game, and subsequently, we’re coughing up five points a game in the turnover discrepancy alone. What I see on the floor: the game is still a little big, a little fast for some of our guys. As they become more comfortable playing with each other and we start to settle into a rotation, some of the turnovers will start to get cleaned up.

Defense

So, back to the title of our analysis here: How the heck can I say that scoring 58 points in a loss (to Colorado, in this case) is a defensive problem? Here’s how: K-State played sublime defense for about 11 minutes out of the gate, jumping out to a sizable 22-9 lead. How were we able to do that? We forced 10 turnovers in those 11 minutes, and scored 11 points off them. We proceeded to give up a 14-0 run to lose the lead across the next four minutes, where we gave up two layups, 7-8 free throws, and a 3. And during that same time, CU committed one turnover...and it wasn’t even forced. 3-3 from the floor, 7-8 from the stripe, and we couldn’t turn them over to create a score, or at the very least, stop the bleeding a little. All that work of the first 11 minutes down the drain.

Of course, then what happens to a young team? They start pressing. Trying to do too much on the offensive end to make up for it. So shot selection gets a little worse, the likelihood of playing out of control and committing offensive fouls goes up, and passing gets a little looser, looking for “home run” passes instead of simple plays. Fast forward to the second half, and we see K-State’s defense breaking down continuously for 20 minutes. While we did an admirable job of running the Buffaloes off the three-point line (they only shot 27% from beyond the arc in the second half, and 29% for the game), our helpside rotations were slow-to-non-existent. The Cats coughed up layup after layup in the second half, allowing CU to go 13-18 from inside the three-point line, and giving up an absurd 10-13 in the paint (9-12 inside the restricted arc!). We’ve given up 34 points in the paint to CU, 40 to Drake, and even 20 to UMKC - a team that was tremendously undersized compared to us - solely because that defensive rotation isn’t there. Ezeagu, AG, Monty, and even Bradford are competent matchups, but we’re not protecting the basket when a perimeter player gets out of position.

In a flow game like basketball, offense and defense are inseparably linked. One is absolutely going to affect the other. [h/t to our Benevolent Despot for hitting this point in a back-channel conversation earlier this week] What we’ve seen so far this season - and we’ve seen it year after year even back to Martin’s tenure - is a team that sometimes struggles to score on the offensive end, and it’s usually because they’re struggling to get stops and aren’t finding those easy points off live-ball turnovers. Given that tough, hard-nosed defense is a core value for a Weber-coached team, I would expect us to get much better defensively as the season progresses. If it doesn’t, expect more losses where we can’t get to sixty on the board.

Too Much Youth

Going back to the positive aspect of having a talented recruiting class coming in, too much can be too much. That 2015-16 season with Kam, BARRY!, and Dean as freshman had talented youth, but it was led by Jr Wes Iwundu, RS-Jr DJ Johnson, and Sr Justin Edwards. Yes, there were seven freshmen on that squad, but there was a genuine nucleus of upperclassman leadership that remained after the scorched earth offseason.

This team is led by Mike McGuirl. Not to sound overly dismissive, but...that’s it. Mike. He’s the team’s upperclassman.

Mike is -33 on the season in +/-; meaning we’ve been outscored by 33 points this year with him on the floor. Sure, that can be contextualized by his team-leading 34 minutes per game...but that -33 is despite a career-high 22 points against Drake. Where he still managed a -9 in the +/-, mind you. In fact, McGuirl is negative in the +/- every game this season; a feat he shares with only Selton Miguel and Rudi Williams. Every other player has had a game where they were at least zero (neutral) on the +/- so far this season.

For more context: DaJuan Gordon is third on the team at almost 30mpg, and at -7 in the +/-. Nijel Pack averages just north of 28mpg, and at -4. It’s important to realize that +/- is a dangerous stat to throw around as an absolute indicator of performance. It could mean that you’re a liability on the floor; it could also mean that, if you’re on the floor more than anyone else, you’re also bearing the brunt of the drop-off when the subs come in off the bench. My assessment - it’s a good mixture of both for Mike.

Sure, you can be very successful year after year reloading with five or six freshmen every year...if you’re Coach Cal over in Kentucky, where you’re bringing in four or five legitimate NBA talents every season. Heck, if you have players that have that kind of affinity for the game, just roll the ball out there and grab a beer.

Where I’m going with this: this team has the ability to be really good, but it’s going to take a little while to bake this cake. They’re not being brought up in an environment where we have an abundance of experience to help settle things down, show the young’ins the ropes, and get them indoctrinated into K-State Basketball. In order for us to succeed early, they need to produce, and produce now. That’s something you can expect of players that will be in the NBA next year, but it’s not fair to expect that of consensus four-star and even lower-rated five-star players. But if we can keep a core of these new players together, things actually look pretty good for potentially hanging another banner in a couple years.

Side Conversations

DaJuan Gordon - despite his schizophrenic outward expression of attitude on the floor, has been delightfully consistent. I’ve noted his -7 total for the season in +/-, but he’s averaging 11 points with a full 7 rebounds a game. If he could get his head wrapped around not shooting the three (where he’s 2 of 9 on the season) and drive those to the bucket as well, he could easily find himself up around 13 or 14ppg. A sophomore that would average 14 and 7, that has the build to be a long, rangy defender? That’s a piece to build around.

We saw a noted improvement in team defense from Drake to CU, then from Colorado to UMKC. They’re starting to get it.

The most important stat I’m going to be tracking through the next month is turnovers. If we start to flip the negative turnover ratio, we’re going to become much more competitive.

I’m going to beat a dead horse: Pack is the best player on the team, and it’s not particularly close. He’s currently second on the team in scoring at 11.7ppg, he’s the best shooter (50.0%/58.8%/50.0%), has the best collective +/- of any starter, and adds 3.0rpg, 3.0apg, and just under a steal per contest. And damn... the dude shoots the ball like a freakin’ nerf gun. It’s just so repeatable. All-conference player already, and POTY-caliber if he can learn to defend at a high level. No hyperbole.

You might be asking who the leader on the track in +/- is? Davion Bradford, at +3. I have no insightful explanation for this. His averaging 8.3mpg means that he’s probably just getting lucky with who he’s on the floor with, both for K-State and our opponent. Bradford has some important tools to be great down the road (a coach once told me “you can’t teach height”), relatively quick feet and soft hands, but if there’s something that bothers me, it’s that Weber’s staff hasn’t shown excellence in developing bigs. Hopefully having JO as a GA can lend some credibility to it.

Keep in mind due to COVID complications, this team had very little time to practice in five-on-five situations coming in to the first game of the season. We’re essentially watching live practices in a scrimmage format - they just happen to count towards the W-L tally. Not an excuse... just a reality; and reality is something that would be good to keep in mind as we navigate this season.