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Kansas State Basketball: K-State 3.0

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One season, three different offensive iterations. And that’s a good thing?

NCAA Basketball: Kansas State at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

This basketball team is starting to annoy me. I’ve spent hours working on two different drafts of a “well guys, the season is over” article, but this team refuses to die. They’ve flat-lined on the table more than once this season, but Bruce keeps breaking out the paddles and bringing them back.

This is going to be a controversial statement. I advise locating a paper bag if you’re prone to rage hyperventilation before reading this. Seriously, this is probably going to upset you, feel free to skip this paragraph, the article will read the same either way. Ok...for those of you who didn’t heed my warning here goes nothing...this may be Bruce’s best pure coaching job since he took over at Kansas State. There I said it, if you read it, you’re going to have to cope, because it’s true.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a team go through three totally different offensive iterations in one season, and yet, Bruce is on to K-State 3.0. Granted, in many ways, he’s trying to solve a problem of his own creation, but that still counts as problem solving in my book. Here’s a rundown of the three different K-State’s we’ve seen this year.

Version 1.0

Lineup vs Arkansas w/ minutes played

Starters

PG: Nigel Pack - 28
SG: Mark Smith - 21
SF: Selton Miguel - 28
PF: Ish Massoud - 31
C: Kaosi Ezeagu - 9

Bench

SG: Mike McGuirl - 31
PG: Markquis Nowell - 18
C: Davion Bradford - 14
SF/PF: Luke Ksubke - 15
C/PF: Logan Landers - 5

This was my least favorite iteration. It’s not bad for Bruce’s traditional motion offense, but it’s not good either. The Kansas State guards are better off the dribble than they are creating points through passing. That’s not ideal when the entire point of the offense is to move the ball around until you find an open shot. Too often the guards would catch the ball, dribble a couple times and then look up. That’s death in a motion offense. Throw in the fact that this lineup doesn’t have a capable post scorer, but still plays a center 28 minutes, isn’t helpful.

The post players contributed the following:

Ezeagu: 4 pts, 4 rebs, 0 turnovers
Bradford: 1 pts, 4 rebs, 3 turnovers
Landers: 3 pts, 1 rebound

Combined the 5 spot provided 8 points, 9 rebounds and 3 turnovers in 28 minutes. That’s not going to get it done in modern college basketball.

Version 2.0

Lineup vs Oklahoma State w/ minutes played

Starters

PG: M. Nowell - 36
SG: N. Pack - 36
SF: M. McGuirl - 34
PF: Mark Smith - 35
C: D. Bradford - 27

Bench

G/F: I. Massoud - 17
G/F: L. Kasubke - 9
C: K. Ezeagu - 4
C: C. Linguard - 4

The listed guards are getting more minutes because Miguel was out with an injury. I liked this lineup better than the first because it essentially does away with the center position. Bradford played 27 minutes, but mostly as a screener or a roll guy. Little to no offense ran through him. He found six shots, made three of them, and basically stayed out of the way. Bruce was playing mostly 5-out with Bradford coming to the top of the key to set screens. Still the center spot was an issue.

The problem with playing any of K-State’s three centers in the high pick and roll with a spread floor is their inability to catch the ball. Nowell has attempted the driving wrap around pass to the trailing center for a dunk approximately 100 times, and I think the rolling center has caught it cleanly 0 times. It’s a good play in theory, but in practice, it mainly ends up with whoever is playing center fumbling around with the ball under the basket until they either turn it over or get fouled. This lineup had the same issue as the first lineup. The post guys aren’t producing on offense, they’re not rebounding, and they’re not good enough on defense to make up for it.

The post players contributed the following:

Bradford: 7 pts, 3 rebs, 3 turnovers
Ezeagu: 0 pts, 1 reb, 1 turnover
Linguard: 0 pts, 0 rebs, 0 turnovers

In 35 minutes of action the center position contributed 7 points, 4 rebounds and 4 turnovers. That’s amazingly bad.

Version 3.0

Lineup vs West Virginia w/ minutes played

Starters

PG: M. Nowell - 33
SG: N. Pack - 37
SF: M. McGuirl - 33
PF: M. Smith - 35
C: D. Bradford - 10

Bench

F/C: I. Massoud - 23
F: S. Miguel - 18
F: L. Kasubke - 9
C: C. Linguard -2

Bruce started the game in a more conventional lineup, but transitioned quickly to a true 5-out lineup. Ezeagu didn’t play, and Bradford and Linguard combined for 12 minutes. Bruce decided to plug Ish Massoud at center, because honestly, why not? It’s not like you’re losing rebounding with Ish at the 5 because the other centers don’t rebound either. What you gain is a legit shooter at the 5 spot who can further stretch the defense and open up space for drives and cuts to the rim. Centers don’t like trying to guard Ish because they’re essentially being asked to guard a tall wing on the perimeter.

This team is built to space the floor and either score at the rim or kick out to shooters. There is no post play, but it doesn’t matter. There was no post play before, but there was a post player either clogging up the lane or fumbling drop off passes out of bounds. Rebounding turns into: everyone crash and try to tap out rebounds and turn them into loose balls. This lineup was only out-rebounded by three, and got a ton better on offense. Seems like a solid trade.

The post (not really) players contributed the following:

D. Bradford: 4 pts, 0 rebs, 1 turnover
C. Linguard: 0 pts, 0 rebs, 1 turnover
I. Massoud: 13 pts, 1 reb, 1 turnover

Now the 5 spot is providing K-State with 17 points, 1 rebound, and 3 turnovers, mainly because they are playing a tall wing at the 5.

Moving Forward

In terms of offense, K-State version 3.0 best utilizes the available personnel. There isn’t a center to be found in the Wildcats top 8 offensive players. I suppose I have to put Bradford at 9, but only because there are no other options. This is a problem of Bruce’s own creation, but at least he has decided to deal with reality instead of getting nothing out of the 5 spot, like he was earlier in the year.

One other interesting, and somewhat unintended, consequence of playing Ish at the 5 more often is it encourages the opposition to play through their center. That’s basketball right? You see a matchup in the post and you go after it all game long. The thing is, that’s the basketball most of us grew up with, but with a few exceptions (Purdue for one) basketball in 2022 is a perimeter game. Centers aren’t typically the guys responsible for putting the ball in the hoop anymore, and when they suddenly become the center of the offense, it doesn’t tend to be efficient.

West Virginia freshman center Isaiah Cottrell is averaging four points a game, but because K-State played such a small lineup, Huggy must have felt he had no option but to get him shots. He ended up scoring a season-high 13 points, but it took him 14 shots to get there. He was only 35% from the floor, even though, in theory, he was the clear mismatch West Virginia needed to exploit. Ish was able to make Cottrell shoot over him, and it worked well. Taz Sherman, their leading scorer on the season, still managed to get up 15 shots, and ended up with 23 points, but their second leading scorer, Sean McNeil only managed to score 5 points on 6 shots. Basically, the Mountaineers went to Cottrell as their second option, instead of the more efficient McNeil (he put up 12 points on 60% shooting against Oklahoma State and 13 points on 67% shooting in a win against Iowa State).

Before everyone gets excited, this isn’t a panacea. There are definite downsides to playing what for all intents and purposes is a 5-guard lineup. Any team with a legit scoring center will blow this lineup out of the water. Purdue, for example, would probably put up 120 points on 90% shooting if you left Ish to play against Trevion Williams and Zach Edey in the post. The traditional centers on this team may not be good, but at some point, size matters, at least on defense and it usually matters for rebounding.

Luckily, the next game against Oklahoma State doesn’t feature a single post player. If the Cowboys want to run their offense through Moussa Cisse because Ish is guarding him, Bruce will be thrilled. I kind of think they wouldn’t mind Kansas trying to beat them with a David McCormack-centric offense either (although it will probably be another blood bath on the glass).

Ideally, when you assemble a team, you have at least one guy taller than 6’8” capable of banging in the post and putting in a few easy buckets. It makes the game much easier when that’s at least an option. K-State version 3.0 will have to scrap to keep it respectable on the glass, and an off shooting night is probably a killer, but playing a traditional center doesn’t change that equation.

Hats off to Bruce for making it work, even though he has no one to blame but himself for being forced to make it work. Hold on to your hats folks, the last five conference games (plus whatever happens in the Big 12 tournament) could be interesting. I’ve written off this squad more than once, but they keep proving me wrong. If they can get to 18 wins, the tournament committee will be forced to decide how to deal with the COVID losses.