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Have the Wildcats Finally Found the Winning Formula?

It’s been a tough season, but maybe Jerome Tang has finally gotten this team figured out.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Kansas State Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

This Kansas State season has been an exercise in frustration for Coach Jerome Tang and the Wildcats. They spent the first half of the season waiting around for two guys that didn’t end up playing a minute on this team. It’s hard to blame this coaching staff for the disjointed roster because it comes much more “jointed” with the addition of Nae’Qwan Tomlin and Ques Glover. While the current roster isn’t what the coaching staff imagined in the off-season, I appreciate them throwing everything at the wall. I don’t think there is a lineup and rotation we haven’t seen this season. These parts weren’t supposed to fit together, and for the most part, they haven’t until Monday night.

Count me as a fan of having the following 4 players on the court, together, as much as possible:

  • G: Tylor Perry
  • G: Dai Dai Ames
  • G: Cam Carter
  • F: Arthur Kaluma

The 5 is still an issue, with Jerrell Colbert, David N’Guessan, and Will McNair all bringing something different, but none bring the total package. If the Wildcats could splice their three centers together, they would come up with a complete player. It’s a little late, but I hear the vet med program has been working on that.

My proposed Frankencenter would solve some problems, but Cam Carter continuing with his ‘21-’22 Mark Smith impersonation is a more reasonable and more ethical solution. Cam Carter, as the kids say (said?), has that dog in him. When he’s locked in, he’s an absolute killer. Granted, he’s not always locked in, but the Cam Carter we saw against Kansas is elite. The 19 points are great, but it’s the 11 rebounds that allow the small lineup to work. The better Carter rebounds, the more Coach Tang can play his best four players together.

Looking at the stats, it’s weird for a team that’s good at offensive rebounding to be so bad at defensive rebounding, but it makes sense. K-State tracks down a bunch of long rebounds off their missed jumpers but gets bullied when teams push the ball in the paint on the other end. According to KenPom, K-State is 34th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage and 267th in defensive rebounding. The ‘Cats rebound their own misses at 34.5% and their opponents at 31.3%. All 11 of Carter’s rebounds came on the defensive end. Kaluma’s six defensive rebounds were good for second.

Kansas State is going to turn the ball over. They can’t help it. Some of it goes back to guys either not playing their ideal position or not playing their ideal role. Their 21.4% turnover percentage is 349th out of 351 teams. Even if they drastically improve, they’re still terrible at taking care of the basketball. That’s hard to overcome because you’re giving the other team free possession. When teams consistently take more shots than you, and a good many of those shots are in transition or turnovers, it’s tough to beat the math.

When you turn the ball over and give up offensive rebounds, the math is even bleaker. They lost the offensive glass 7 to 13 against Iowa State and the turnover battle 17-15 against the Cyclones and dropped the game 78-67. They lost the offensive boards 7 to 15 against Houston and turned the ball over 18 times compared to the Cougars’ 8. They lost 52-74. Rebounding was closer against Oklahoma, with the ‘Cats gathering 10 of their own misses and the Sooners snagging 12, but again, the turnover differential was heavily in Oklahoma’s favor, 9 to 14.

The numbers started to turn in the Oklahoma State game. The ‘Cats managed to win the offensive rebounding category 12-11, but turnovers once again plagued Jerome Tang’s crew. They coughed it up 15 times to the Cowboys’ 11, and Oklahoma State pulled out a 3-point win. Still, the game ended 75-72 and it was essentially a coin toss, make or miss sort of ending. Holding their own on the offensive glass, despite losing turnovers, gave them a chance.

That brings us back to the Kansas win. The Wildcats won the offensive glass 9-7. They still lost turnovers 16-9 but like the Oklahoma State game, had a chance to win. This time they made more than they missed and pulled off the huge overtime win. Cam Carter’s 11 defensive boards kept the Jayhawks off the boards, and the cool thing with Carter pulling down boards is he can push the ball in transition. Sometimes he pushes a little too hard and turns it over, but a team that shoots as poorly as Kansas State needs as many opportunities as possible.

Speaking of shooting... Tylor Perry... dare I say it... looks like one of the best shooters in the nation over the last two games? He went 5-9 from deep against Oklahoma State and 4-10 against Kansas, on his way to 26 big points for the offensively challenged Wildcats. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Perry’s return to shooting form is happening at the same time he remembers that you can shoot something other than 3’s. Over the last 3 games, he’s attempted 17 2-point attempts. In the previous seven games before that, he attempted 17 2-point attempts. Analytics be damned, basketball is still a game of rhythm and feel. Perry driving the ball, taking some contact, and seeing the ball go through the hoop can only help his deep range.

Instead of floating around the perimeter looking for a quick trigger 3, Perry has started attacking the lane. Granted, he’s still turning the ball over with regrettable frequency because he’s a small shooting guard trying to run the point, but he can make up for the turnovers when he’s scoring, and he’s at his scoring best when he’s attacking. Much like offensive rebounding can help mitigate the turnovers, Perry scoring and getting hot from deep can do the same thing. When he’s cooking, he doesn’t need many shots to put up a bunch of points with his ability from deep and from the free-throw line.

That brings me to Arthur Kaluma. He’s the guy playing somewhat out of position when K-State runs their three-guard lineup. He’s moved from his normal spot on the wing to the 4. Now, that doesn’t exclude him from being on the wing on offense, but it does occasionally put him in a tough spot on defense. Instead of chasing around other skinny wings, the 6’7”, 225-pound Kaluma occasionally ends up in the post. He’s got to be able to hold his own and stay out of foul trouble because he’s the guy that makes this work. If Kaluma leaves the game, Coach Tang is going to put in two bigs and run a more conventional look. With Kaluma at the 4, the floor spreads, and the Wildcats have four guys capable of driving their man. They also have four guys willing to pull the dribble off a drive and kick or a roll and replace.

When Bill Self talked about K-State being more athletic than his team, it’s because the Wildcats get hyper-athletic when Kaluma plays the 4 and Carter plays the 3. The trade-off is size in the post, and like Carter, he has to rebound the ball. His 8 rebounds against Kansas was three more than any game since his 10 against Baylor (also a win). When Kaluma pulls down the board, like Cam, he can push the pace on his own. That’s what makes this lineup a better offensive threat. Transition is where this team can thrive, and having four guys capable of pushing the ball helps get the team in transition more often. Again, this team needs to get up shots. They’re not going to win low possession games because they turn the ball over too often.

That brings me to Dai Dai. I like his increased role. Sometimes it’s not going to be pretty, but it needs to happen. Outside of Carter, he might be the most willing driver on the team. Even if he doesn’t score, the threat of driving the ball pushes the defense back and gives shooters an extra half-step to get off a shot. It also puts the defense in rotation, which should open up more rhythm catch-and-shoot 3’s instead of the endless clank of off-the-dribble pull-up 3’s. Having Dai Dai in the lineup allows Perry to move off the ball some and find open shots off screens instead of backing up and firing off pick and rolls.

Looking beyond this season, playing Ames should pay dividends down the road. Guards learn on the court. Markquis Nowell made more than his share of mistakes during his career before everything finally clicked and he assumed his final form as a Point God. Kansas State needs Dai Dai to not only contribute every game this season but learn every game. I don’t think this is the year for the ‘Cats. You never know, this team has shooters who could get in the tournament and get hot, but I’m not optimistic. If Dai Dai sticks around, however, there will be a season during his stay where things come together and Coach Tang makes a legit push for the Big 12 and a high seed in March. When that happens, having an experienced guard like Ames, a guy who has taken a few lumps early in his career but played through them, will be crucial.

In Summary, I spent a good bit of time (perhaps too much) talking about the formula without ever giving y’all the formula.

It looks something like this:

  • Cam, Kaluma, Perry: 35+ minutes
  • Cam and Kaluma: combine for 15+ rebounds (the closer to 20 the better)
  • Perry: Attack on offense. Drive the ball more to set up better 3-point attempts and get to the foul line.
  • Center: Rotate through N’Guessan, McNair, and Colbert depending on what you need. N’Guessan is the most polished of the three, but McNair brings a physical presence on the block, and Colbert is a defensive eraser.
  • Ames: Stay on the court as long as possible in a 3-guard lineup to take ball-handling pressure off Perry and let him work off the ball.

The next three games are going to tell the story of this season. Two are on the road, and at this point, I think the Wildcats need to win two of the three. Knocking off BYU on the road would be a solid resume piece. TCU at home is a must-win. Beating Texas in Austin is also getting close to a must-win.

The good news, I hope, is that the team may have finally found a rotation that works. If they can pull out a couple of games down the stretch, wins over Villanova, Baylor, and Kansas will go a long way with the committee, but they have to win enough games to get into consideration. Right now they’re barely on the bubble, but there are plenty of opportunities to pick up impressive wins in February. Coach Tang needs a dramatic finish to an otherwise frustrating season, and I wouldn’t bet against him or the Wildcats after what I saw against Kansas.