It turns out Kansas State’s improvement against Texas Tech last weekend wasn’t a mirage.
The Wildcats looked crisp on offense and hit a lot of shots during their best 16-minute stretch to start a game this season. Then they stunned everyone by roaring back in the second half.
Unfortunately, there was an ugly stretch and No. 13 Texas shot extremely well for much of the game. The Longhorns nearly suffered what would have been considered a monumental collapse but they hit their free throws down the stretch and K-State couldn’t quite get all the way back in an 80-77 loss.
As Mike McGuirl’s halfcourt heave at the buzzer fell just off the mark, Shaka Smart surely breathed a big sigh of relief and Bruce Weber surely felt good about his team’s performance. The Cats traded baskets and free throws in the final minutes when they needed something a bit more, so that first win of 2021 remains elusive.
We’ll talk about KSU’s remarkable yet unsustainable early shooting soon, but the most amazing part of Tuesday’s performance was how the Wildcats took care of the ball. A team averaging more than 16 turnovers per game committed just three in the first half and finished with only 8.
Crucial to that success was great ball movement and good spacing on the floor, along with a willingness to attack the basket. K-State hit 4 of its first 5 threes to help open up driving lanes, and Selton Miguel, Mike McGuirl and Antonio Gordon all showed their ability to get to the hoop.
At the other end, the talented Texas frontcourt didn’t overwhelm Kansas State inside and the Wildcats’ zone did a decent job of stopping the Longhorns’ very capable guards on the dribble-drive. Unfortunately, Texas rediscovered its 3-point stroke that looked lost during a 5-35 performance over the weekend, hitting its first 6 treys to keep pace.
K-State refused to fold, even when Texas used an 8-0 run to open up a 27-21 lead with 8:55 left before halftime. Nijel Pack hit a jumper, Kaosi Ezeagu scored a layup and McGuirl hit a pair of jumpers before a nice drive and finish from Rudi Williams put the Wildcats back in front 34-32. At that point KSU was shooting 50%.
That would be Kansas State’s last field goal for more than seven minutes, until Nijel Pack hit another incredibly difficult shot. Despite some free throws from the Cats, that drought allowed Texas to open up a double digit lead.
The Longhorns kept shooting as if it was pregame warmups and to be honest, most of their jumpers faced about the same amount of defensive resistance. They ended up 13 of 26 from 3, which seems pretty good for a team that entered the game shooting 33% for the season.
Texas looked poised to turn this one into another blowout, opening up a 17-point lead with just under 13 minutes remaining. Then a strange thing happened. Kansas State put together a respectable comeback thanks to some notable defensive success.
While the Longhorns went more than ten minutes with only two field goals, Pack hit another three and Davion Bradford added a layup. Eventually, another Bradford layup brought K-State back within single digits and then he hit two free throws to cut the deficit to 68-62 with 5:15 left.
After another basket McGuirl nearly brought K-State within one, but instead his three rimmed out and Texas answered by knocking down a trey at the other end. Fortunately McGuirl got another chance after a crazy sequence with a minute left that included a sloppy turnover and a missed dunk for Texas, and this time Mike knocked down the shot to make it 74-73 with 42 seconds left.
Pack hit a layup and McGuirl added two free throws to keep the pressure on Texas, and to their credit, the Longhorns answered the call. At the end of the day, though, it was an incredibly valiant effort by Kansas State.
The stats chart was nearly as even as the final score. Both teams shot 51 percent for the game (26-51). Texas made 8 of 12 first-half attempts from three point range in the first half, but cooled off somewhat to finish the game 13-for-26. K-State was 9-for-23 from deep, with five players connecting on at least one attempt. Texas out-rebounded K-State 29-28. The Wildcats were 16-24 at the free throw line, while the Longhorns were 15-21. In the end, K-State just needed one more deep shot to drop.
Nijel Pack led the way for the Cats with 23 points on a 7-for-14 shooting night. McGuirl added 18, and all eight players to see action scored at least 4.
Texas had four players in double figures, headlined by Andrew Jones, who scored 24. Freshman forward Greg Brown made 4 of 5 three-point attempts and finished with 17.
Three in the Key
1) Perhaps zone is the answer to Kansas State’s defensive woes? The Cats entered the game ranked 222nd in KenPom’s defensive ratings, which would be the worst in the Big 12 era by a mere 154 spots if it holds. So, obviously, there’s plenty of room for improvement, and I’d say giving up open jumpers from beyond the arc has a much better chance of working than giving up open layups. Then again, the man-to-man defense showed some serious mettle for the latter part of the second half after I started writing this, so who knows?
2) We’ve heard a lot this season about how Kansas State’s offense needs to run through Davion Bradford, and it’s not an idea without merit considering the big freshman’s talent. But tonight the offense looked effective thanks to perimeter play and great ball movement outside the paint, namely from Pack, McGuirl and Miguel. Yes, there was still some stagnation and of course McGuirl took a few dumb shots (often because someone has to launch). Still, we saw some encouraging signs, and attacking the basket even yielded 24, tied for the most K-State’s shot in any Big 12 game this season. Plus, Bradford and Gordon proved they can do some damage on the offensive glass.
3) Now that Kansas State’s young guys are beginning to show some serious flashes, the next step will be developing consistency. Scoring droughts have long been a hallmark of Bruce Weber teams, and they’re a lot more noticeable when he doesn’t have anything resembling an elite defense. The fact is there just aren’t enough reliable scorers right now for the offense to be consistent for 40 minutes. Nijel Pack and Davion Bradford can’t carry the load for that long and as much as Mike McGuirl wants to be the guy that leads the team in field goals every night, he shouldn’t be doing that.
Up Next: Kansas State travels to Stillwater for an 11 a.m. tipoff at Oklahoma State on Saturday.