Kansas State’s athleticism was on full display Saturday, creating an impressive highlight package while routing Nebraska 71-56 in Kansas City.
Naturally, Keyontae Johnson led the way, going for an efficient 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting and adding 11 rebounds for his second double-double as a Wildcat. The dynamic senior also came away with a team-high three steals, one of which turned into an emphatic one-handed slam at the other end.
A few moments later, Nae’Qwan Tomlin happily accepted a free path to the basket along the baseline for a two-handed dunk. That capped off a 12-3 run to put the Wildcats ahead 37-24 and less than a minute later David N’Guessan caught a Markquis Nowell lob for another tomahawk dunk just before the halftime buzzer.
It looked as though Kansas State might open up a double-digit lead much earlier when Nowell knocked down his second of what would be eventually 3 threes. But Nebraska scored the next seven points and the Cats struggled to score inside, so they couldn’t pull away despite knocking down 5 of their first 11 3-point attempts.
Johnson began to change that by finding some open looks inside and also creating a dunk for Tomlin, who scored 15 points, grabbed 7 rebounds and blocked 2 shots. Nowell took a different approach when he drilled a shot from well beyond the arc, which was unfortunately his last made field goal on a night when he finished with 13 points, 7 assists, 2 steals and shot just 3-of-14 from the field.
The second half began with more of the same for the Wildcats as Johnson kept going inside and Tomlin converted another layup. Cam Carter added a 3-pointer on the way to 10 points and K-State eventually extended its advantage to 59-40 on Johnson’s layup at the 8:56 mark.
Things got quite ugly from there, and a more confident offense might have made the pro-KSU crowd in KC sweat a little bit. Fortunately, even with Fred Hoiberg at the helm, this is still Nebrasketball, so they got no closer than 7 points.
One more nonconference game awaits before Big 12 play begins, but if 6-6 Radford gives K-State any trouble in Bramlage Coliseum next Wednesday then this isn’t the team we think it is. West Virginia will be in Manhattan on New Year’s Eve, just a few hours after the Sugar Bowl, so don’t go too hard at your watch party.
Three in the Key
- Real success or a mirage? Apparently 10-1 is the best start for a first-year coach in Kansas State history, so Jerome Tang undoubtedly deserves all the praise he’s getting so far. But we should probably put an asterisk on that record, considering the weak competition the Wildcats have faced. Butler, LSU or Nevada could well prove me wrong, but I’m not sure Kansas State has played an NCAA tournament team yet. On the flip side of that, we need to remember to adjust our expectations for Big 12 play, where just going .500 means you’re a great team. Just look at Iowa State from last year. The Cyclones opened the season 12-0 against a weak schedule and some people might have dismissed that mark after a 7-11 conference record followed by a Day 1 exit in KC, but Iowa State ended up being a Sweet 16 team.
- Keyontae’s THE scorer for this team: Even though this is probably obvious to everyone reading this by now, it’s still something I need to put out there. Yes, Markquis can get hot and in some ways he’s the heart-soul of this group thanks to his leadership, plus 8.2 assists per game is second in the nation for a reason. Obviously a lot of other guys can score. That being said, if K-State absolutely needs a bucket, the ball has to be in KJ’s hands. His versatility, efficiency and experience make him one of the Big 12’s most reliable scoring options. I trust Tang will know how to take advantage of this in key situations.
- Turnovers aren’t fixed yet: Nebraska’s defense is one of the best Kansas State has seen this year (again, not a high bar) and does a decent job pressuring the ball, forcing 14 turnovers a game. Turns out that’s exactly how many K-State ended up with for the night, so maybe this wasn’t so bad. But it sure felt bad when players were making sloppy passes and committing seven of those turnovers in the first 15 minutes. The fact that the Cats have totaled the third-most turnovers per game of any team in the Big 12 is troubling and it’s only going to get worse if they keep playing this way once conference games start.