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Kansas State rolls past UTRGV in Tang’s debut, 93-59

Newcomers and returners alike played an exciting brand of basketball in the season opener at Bramlage.

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Conference Tournament-West Virginia vs Kansas State
Markquis Nowell remains electric as the leader of a new-look Kansas State basketball team.
Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s start by noting this was just one game and UT Rio Grande Valley is a very bad basketball team, picked to finish last in the WAC, ranked 332 out of 364 Division I teams by KenPom.

That disclaimer aside, could Jerome Tang’s regular season debut at Bramlage Coliseum have gone any better Monday night? This Kansas State team looks like a group ready to Make Basketball Fun Again.

The athleticism. The energy. The fast breaks. The in-your-face defense. The alley oops. The 3-point shooting! It was all there for the Wildcats in a 93-59 thrashing that wasn’t really that close.

Former Florida standout Keyontae Johnson impressed just like he did in the exhibition win over Washburn, scoring 11 of his 13 points in the first half. His back-to-back threes put Kansas State ahead 18-5 not quite seven minutes into the game, even after a somewhat slow offensive start.

Markquis Nowell buried a three for the game’s first field goal, one of 3 he would hit on 3 attempts from beyond the arc on his way to 14 points. My personal favorite was the one where he pulled a Steph Curry and turned around while the ball was still in the air, but his catch-and-shoot from about 25 feet was fun, too.

The defense came out aggressive from the tip, holding the Vaqueros scoreless for the first three minutes and limiting them to two field goals before the second media timeout. It seemed like almost any rebound had the potential to lead to transition buckets and K-State’s guards did well applying pressure to help force UTRGV into 25 turnovers.

David N’Guessan’s 3-pointer off a nice drive-n-dish by Nowell (one of his 7 assists) gave the Wildcats a 25-7 advantage and the flashy point guard’s behind-the-back pass Nae’Qwan Tomlin’s dunk a couple possessions later to extend the lead to 20. Tomlin matched Nowell with a team-high 14 points and also grabbed a game-high eight rebounds.

Tykei Greene showed off his athleticism on a great dunk to finish off a drive, made the free throw to put KSU ahead by 30 and he later hit a three at the halftime buzzer to make it 52-26 Kansas State.

That’s right, 52 points. In a half. It was a beautiful thing to see. And it didn’t stop there.

A slight lull at the end of the first half gave a sign of things to come at times in the second half for Kansas State, which was understandable considering the scoreboard. But there was still plenty to like as the shots just kept dropping and the defense did a lot more things right, drawing charges, contesting shots and getting into passing lanes.

Somehow Cam Carter didn’t score until a free throw early in the second half, and he finished with 6 points for the night. The fact that K-State’s offense still didn’t miss a beat without the guy expected to be one of its top contributors doing much at all certainly qualifies as a promising sign.

One of Ish Massoud’s 2 threes capped off an 8-0 run as the Wildcats returned to doubling up the Vaqueros, 64-32. The junior forward finished with ten points, including a baseline drive finished off by a dunk, and looked like a guy who could thrive in a secondary role where he doesn’t need to work too hard to find his shots.

Fortunately, it appears the Cats might have enough creators to make that possible, thanks to guys like Nowell, Johnson and Carter. Shooting 12-of-27 from 3 always helps open up more space on the court as well.

Inside, Abiyomi Iyola showed some impressive skills, scoring 12 points on 5-of-5 shooting off the bench.

Sadly, K-State dropped off the 100-point pace with about three minutes left, so the Cats settled for merely their highest point total since a 95-68 win over Eastern Kentucky in September 2018. That’ll work.

Next up is what figures to be a tougher challenge when Kansas State goes on the road for the first time this season to face California, a team picked to finish second-to-last in a much better conference than the WAC.

Three in the Key

  1. Lockdown defense: Sure, this wasn’t the best offense Kansas State will face all season, but UTRGV did score 136 points in an exhibition game against a team called the Concordia Tornadoes. Everyone except Justin Johnson, who scored a game-high 20 points, and Adante Holiman, who added 13, looked pretty much helpless against K-State’s defense. We saw how effective the help is already anytime the Vaqueros tried to drive, and that’s only going to get better as this team spends more time on the court together. UTRGV finished the night shooting just 39% from the field and 26% from the 3-point line.
  2. Playing fast: It’s been a while since we saw a Kansas State team so consistently intentional about pushing the ball up the floor and creating scoring opportunities before the defense had time to get set up. Having a lot of great athletes certainly helps and the Wildcats made UTRGV pay for any laziness. Nine steals proved beneficial as well. It’ll be interesting to see how this looks when the Cats face a more athletic opponent.
  3. Careful with the ball: If we had just one complaint, and it’s a minor one, it would be that sometimes K-State played a little fast and loose with the basketball, leading to 14 turnovers. That’ll happen when you’re trying to maximize your scoring opportunities (see above) and of course this is a team still trying to build chemistry, with some guys who haven’t even had a month of practice yet. The Cats still recorded 25 assists on 30 field goals, so they’re obviously sharing the basketball well.