We’ve heard a lot about Kansas State’s improvement over the last 3 weeks, and Thursday’s Big 12 quarterfinal against No. 2 Baylor removed any lingering doubt.
Yes, it’s true the Bears aren’t playing at the same elite level they reached often before a 21-day Covid pause in February, but this is still a very good basketball team. So for Kansas State to only lose 74-68 feels like a fairly remarkable achievement and an encouraging sign for this young group heading into the offseason.
Freshman Nijel Pack and Davion Bradford led the way with 18 points each, including 6-of-9 shooting for 3 from Pack. But make no mistake, it was the KSU defense that helped this team go from getting embarrassed twice to nearly pulling off the biggest upset in Big 12 tournament history.
The Cats’ pressure almost seemed to catch Baylor by surprise early, forcing 10 turnovers in the first 12 minutes. That allowed KSU to trail only 23-20 at the under-8 timeout, which was somewhat different than the 38-17 and 41-7 deficits K-State faced at the same point in its previous two losses to the Big 12 champs.
Davion Bradford led the Wildcats offensively, scoring 13 points in the game’s first 16 minutes. Baylor simply had no answer for the 7-foot freshman, despite how excited the announcers were to see Jared Butler challenge Bradford three times at the rim (Results: two fouls and one ultimately useless block that gave Bradford an easy layup).
Pack’s lone basket of the first half was a contested three to briefly tie the game at 25 before Matthew Mayer and MaCio Teague responded with threes of their own. After a slow start the Bears did eventually heat up to finish the first half 55% from the field, which just made it all the more amazing that K-State only trailed by two points.
Honestly, the most important stat for the Wildcats’ offense was only seven attempted threes in the first half (they made just two) because they were so successful getting the ball inside. Bruce even drew up two beautiful, successful alley-oops to DaJuan Gordon, but did you know there are still people who don’t respect Bruce’s Xs and Os?
Kansas State finally took its first lead when Nijel Pack hit a three to open the second half, although the first four minutes also brought some bad news as Selton Miguel and Mike McGuirl went to the bench after picking up their third fouls. Then again, they only had a combined 3 points at the time.
Nonetheless, a 10-2 Baylor run followed, forcing a Bruce Weber timeout and the insertion of McGuirl back into the game. Pack responded with another huge three, as he so often does, and another one about three minutes later made it 55-52 Baylor.
Regrettably, a Baylor three and a generous and-one continuation when Nijel Pack took an elbow to the face while fouling (?) extended the lead to 9, the biggest of the game at that point. Butler, Teague and Mitchell caused problems all night for K-State’s defensive backcourt, combining for 65 points on 58% shooting.
Kansas State’s typical mediocre shooting couldn’t keep up with one of the best offenses in the country, which was just never going to be at 40% from the field or below like the last six opponents the Wildcats beat. One late possession underscored those offensive struggles, when Pack missed a three, Miguel grabbed the rebound, and his layup rolled off, keeping Baylor’s lead at 68-61.
Still, a 7-0 run brought K-State within 5 and Pack hit his sixth three of the game to make it 70-66 with about a minute left. Things could have gotten really interesting if referees had called a clear foul against Pack as he caught a pass on the next possession, but instead he inexplicably threw the ball behind him, no whistle blew, and it turned into the Wildcats’ 17th turnover, essentially sealing the game for Baylor.
The Bears committed 21 turnovers of their own and mostly got outworked by Kansas State, even though Baylor barely won the rebounding battle, 30-28. So what was the difference? Simple. Baylor shot 53% from the field (41% from 3) and Kansas State shot 41% (40% from 3, 18% if you take away Pack). Breaking news: Shooting remains key in basketball.
So that will do it for the 2020-21 season. You’ll see some more coverage from us, I’m sure, but for now here are some parting thoughts.
Three in the Key
- If you’re not excited about the growth of K-State’s young players over the course of this season, you weren’t paying attention. It didn’t apply to all of them and without naming names I’ll say that it wouldn’t be the worst thing if some players left, but Nijel Pack, Davion Bradford and Selton Miguel all have very bright futures. They combined for 43 of Kansas State’s 68 points and they did it efficiently, shooting a combined 14-26 from the field. Best of all, there’s still plenty of room for improvement, mostly on the offensive end for Miguel and at the defensive end for both Pack and Bradford, who would also benefit immensely from developing a bit more range on his jump shot.
- So where does this leave Bruce Weber? Well, if you don’t think he’s earned the right to come back if he wants to, then you’ve probably been a hater all along or else not really paying attention these last 9 games or so. This team’s already improved a lot and he’s turned a promising freshmen class into Big 12 champions once before, so why couldn’t he do it again?
All that being said, if you want my personal opinion, it wouldn’t break my heart if he does decide to retire, so long as the core players stick around. Another coach could probably find success with this group as well, and Bruce definitely has had his share of very ugly moments over the past two seasons that make you wonder if he’s really the best option available.In his postgame press conference today Bruce seemingly put to bed those recent retirement rumors, so I’m looking forward to seeing how much better he can do with this team next season.
- If that was Mike McGuirl’s last game as a Wildcat, it wasn’t exactly a good one. He ended up with just 3 points, all from the free throw line, while shooting 0-7 from the field and 0-6 from three. But even when you add five turnovers to his lowest point total of the season, McGuirl (who has never been a great shooter, despite what we remember from his best moments) still offered some contributions in his 30 minutes. He dished out 7 assists, grabbed 3 rebounds and came up with 2 steals in what wasn’t his best defensive effort. Basically, he showed us once again that he’s working extremely hard to overachieve in a role considerably above his talent level, and it’s hard to fault Mike too much for that. The ideal scenario would be seeing him come back as a mentor and sparkplug off the bench, but I’m not sure that will work for either him or the team.
- BONUS: I almost forgot about this given how well Kansas State played, and maybe you did, too. The Wildcats were without Antonio Gordon and Montavious Murphy, two sophomores who appeared in the starting lineup this season. Once again, the future is bright.