If this were a horse race, Kansas State would be the horse that broke hard out of the gate and pushed the pace early, building a lead. Now it’s time to head down the stretch, and the Wildcats look gassed. Markquis Nowell and Keyontae Johnson, in particular, look a step behind their early and mid-season form. This is a star-centric team, and if the stars don’t consistently produce, it’s almost impossible to win games in the Big 12.
This isn’t a criticism of Markquis or Keyontae. It’s not necessarily a criticism of Jerome Tang. It’s simply a fact. As of this moment, according to KenPom, Kansas State plays their bench averages 24.3% of total minutes played. That’s good for 326th in the nation. Only five Major Conference teams have used their bench less than Jerome Tang this season. Kansas at 20.1% is the only team in the Big 12 that has used their reserves less.
Using your bench is a tricky proposition. Use it too much, and it means that you don’t have much front line talent. Use it too little, and the front line talent you have gets worn down at the end of a long season. Kansas State has been in a bit of a Catch-22. Coach Tang had to ride Nowell and Johnson early to be in their current position. At the same time, having them play big minutes early has them looking gassed late.
Both guys rely on playing a physical, high energy game. At 5’8”, 160 pounds, it is a testament to Nowell’s strength and endurance that he has been on the court for 88.9% of Kansas State’s minutes. He’s not a catch an shoot guy that drifts around the perimeter. He throws his body around like a luchador, bouncing off would be defenders on the way to the rim, and often times finishing the play by skidding out of bounds. On defense, teams seek him out and look to crunch him with screens. Want to slow Kansas State down? Slow Markquis Nowell down. Want to slow Markquis Nowell down? Punish him on defense.
Keyontae Johnson is better built to take the physical abuse, but the dude hasn’t played competitive basketball in two years. He’s in impeccable shape, and the fact that he’s played 82% of K-State’s minutes is nothing short of a miracle, but it looks like the grind is starting to get to him. Don’t get me wrong, both guys are still phenomenal but they’re not the same players we saw mid-January, and that’s a problem.
Two + Everyone Else
The formula for Kansas State is simple. Nowell and Johnson have to score for this team to win. Notice the “and” in the sentence? It’s important. It can’t be Nowell or Johnson it has to be Nowell and Johnson, otherwise the Wildcat’s struggle to put up enough points to win. Jerome Tang desperately needs his dynamic duo to combine for at least 40 points. When that happens, he can generally scrape together another 30 points from everyone else.
Nowell and Johnson’s combined points in losses
Butler - 33 (76-64)
TCU - 32 (82-68)
Iowa State - 38 (80-76)
Kansas - 45 (90-78)
Texas - 26 (69-66)
Texas Tech - 27 (71-63)
Oklahoma - 28 (79-65)
There is one game that breaks my 40 point rule (Kansas) and one that comes close (Iowa State). Kansas State played well enough on offense to win both games, but their defense was putrid. The Wildcats have dropped 4 of their last 5, and they’ve only broken 70 points twice in that stretch. A win against TCU and the aforementioned defensive collapse against Kansas.
This team wants to play games in the 70s or 80s, not the 60s. They can win games in the 60s, (Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Florida) but it requires the other team to cooperate. It’s no coincidence all three of the teams listed are average to below average on offense.
Nowell and Johnson’s combined points in big wins
Nevada - 57 (96-87 OT)
West Virginia - 41 (82-76 OT)
Texas - 64 (116-103)
Baylor - 56 (97-95 OT)
OK St - 32 (65-57)
Kansas - 28 (83-82 OT)
Texas Tech - 54 (68-58)
Florida - 26 (64-50)
TCU - 32 (82-61)
Obviously my 40 point measuring stick looked better at the start of the season when the Wildcats were racking up big wins while putting up big points. Against Oklahoma State, despite not cracking 40, Nowell and Johnson still scored half the points. Kansas was the Desi Sills game. Markquis was held to 4 points, but Desi came through 24. Sub his point total in for Nowell’s and you get a combined 48 points. If Desi doesn’t essentially replace Nowell’s points, the ‘Cats lose big. Florida’s offense was so awful, Nowell and Johnson still got the K-State a little over halfway to the final winning score. 51 points were required to beat the Gators and Nowell and Johnson put up 26. Finally, the TCU game was strange, but Nowell and Johnson’s 32 points still got the ‘Cats over halfway to the 62 points required to win the game. Tykei Greene and David N’Guessan combining for 23 points helped make up for Johnson and Nowell coming up 8 short.
Down the Stretch
The good news is that Wildcat’s have only lost one home game, and finish the year playing 3/5 at home. The bench tends to help out more in the friendly confines of The Octagon of Doom, taking some of the pressure off of Jerome Tang’s dynamic duo. Still, this team will go as far as Markquis and Keyontae can take them. They’ve got to shake off the their February funk or this thing could go up in flames.
I want to see Nowell push the pace and get into the open floor more often. He’s always going to be turnover prone, but tends to make up for his mistakes with assists when he operates in a more broken court, as opposed to playing against a set defense waiting for him at the rim. Coach Tang needs the Nowell from the West Virginia, Texas, Baylor, Oklahoma St. stretch earlier in the season to reemerge. If he can find it again, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Wildcats win out. If he continues to struggle, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Wildcats lose out. He’s the lynch pin for the entire team (until Sills is playing the game of his life).
When Markquis pushes the pace, it turns Keyontae into a rim finisher instead of a jump shooter. While Johnson can hit jumpers, like Markquis, he’s better using his freak athleticism to cash in the open floor. He hasn’t cracked the 20 point mark since the Kansas game on January 31st. In fact, over the last 10 games, he has managed 20 or more points twice (both against Kansas). Like Nowell, Keyontae’s return to form will dictate the end of the season run. If Coach Tang consistently gets early/mid season Johnson, everything will work out fine. That’s a big ask on tired legs against top notch competition, but I doubt the rest of the Big 12 will show him any mercy.
It would be ideal if ‘Cats could find a consistent third scorer, and help fill the gap if Markquis or Keyontae struggle, but that has yet to happen, and time is running out. Desi Sills is the obvious candidate, but he’s been up and down all season. Tomlin has come on as of late, but his scoring, while much needed, seems more like a bonus than a sure thing.
One thing that would help is Cam Carter breaking out of his drought. He’s another guy that is new to carrying a heavy minutes load and Sills has overtaken him in terms of playing time. He has the ability to get red hot, but after putting up 0 points total in the last two games. I’ll settle for lukewarm. Another Ish Massoud flare up on offense could help get K-State over the hump, but he’s more likely to score 5 points than he is to score 10 on any given night. He’s a one trick, 3-point shooting pony, and when that trick doesn’t work, he doesn’t have another way to put the ball in the basket.
At one point in the season, it looked like David N’Guessan might step up and be the third scorer for Jerome Tang, but a foot injury followed by an illness has stopped that in its tracks. Abayomi Iyiola is a solid energy big off the bench, but he’s not a player that can consistently score.
Let’s hope a return home helps rejuvenate K-State’s dynamic duo. When they are both on at the same time, the ‘Cats look like one of the best teams in the nation. When Markquis or Keyontae struggle, they look more like a mid-tier Big 12 team capable of losing on any given night.
Jerome Tang’s group has far exceeded my expectations already this season (granted, those shot up after seeing Johnson return to his Florida form), but a late season swoon would knock down some of the early and mid-season excitement around the program. It’s up to Nowell and Johnson to drag the Wildcats over the finish line, but they’ll need to find their legs for that to happen.