It's really amazing how much of a difference one big game against a top ten team on national television (even just ESPNU) can make.
This time a week ago, most non-KSU fans probably looked at Marcus Foster's 14 points per game and figured it was mostly just a solid scoring guard being asked to do a lot against often weak competition for a team lacking in offensive options. To be fair, that assessment would not be totally wrong, especially back in November.
Now, after posting 17 points and 8 rebounds in a win over No. 6 Oklahoma State, plus another 16 vs. TCU, it's suddenly become a trend in college basketball circles to call Foster one of the most underrated freshmen in America. Jay Williams put K-State's new star just on the outside fringe of the top 5 frosh in the NCAA, and Sean Keeler at Fox Sports even put Foster on the same level as KU's Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. That same article has a quote from Foster's high school coach saying he would be in the 8-9 man rotation for the Miami Heat.
OK, so obviously that last statement takes us into the realm of the absurd, unless you're ready to call Ray Allen washed up. But what about all those other things? Is it possible to go from underrated to overrated in just one game?
First of all, let's set the ground rules right away that we're not talking about NBA readiness or abilities, we're talking about college basketball. Secondly, he's still only 15 games into his career and has wildly outperformed expectations, so it would be foolish to set any kind of ceiling on Foster at the moment.
He's not quite shooting 40% from the field, which is worse than Wiggins and not that good by any measure. On the other hand, Foster has a much higher usage rate because of how much K-State relies on him at times, so the degree of difficulty on his shots might be higher.
Wiggins is outscoring Foster (by a little more than a point), as are Kentucky's Julius Randle and Duke's Jabari Parker. Unless you're wearing purple glasses, it would still be foolish to put any of those guys, or even Arizona's Aaron Gordon and Syracuse's Tyler Ennis, behind Foster, but he's closed the gap considerably.
Perhaps the most encouraging part of Marcus' success so far is the way he has performed in big games. Since a rather disappointing 11-point effort in the loss to Charlotte (on 5-of-14 shooting) Foster has scored no fewer than 14 against teams with a pulse, and even when he struggled a little vs. Gonzaga he still pulled down 6 rebounds and destroyed poor David Stockton.
K-State turned to its star in crunch time against Ole Miss, and he responded in a big way to lead the 'Cats to victory. He perhaps could have done more to assert himself down the stretch against South Dakota or even OSU, but it''s rather impressive this team that is so heavily reliant on freshmen is 3-0 in games decided by 5 points or less since the loss we all want to forget.
As a 6-foot-2 (allegedly) guard not capable of dazzling off the dribble, locking people down on defense, or regularly shooting lights-out from long range, Foster certainly still has some limitations at this point. Nonetheless, those are things that can improve, and he's still well ahead of freshman Jacob Pullen and freshman Rodney McGruder 15 games into their careers.
More importantly for now, everything we've seen so far from Foster indicates he'll be heading into Allen Fieldhouse as a fearless scorer with something to prove. That doesn't necessarily guarantee success and could even backfire if he tries to do too much, but it's certainly better than the alternative.
To get an in-depth preview of Saturday's game, check out the podcast I recorded earlier this week with Sam Mellinger of the KC Star. If that's not an attractive option or you don't have time, here are the Cliff Notes.
For me, the key to this game will be how well Jevon Thomas and K-State's other perimeter defenders can keep KU's guards out of the lane and disrupt their rhythm. If the Wildcats can't stop the dribble penetration or allow easy looks inside to Perry Ellis and Joel Embiid, the Jayhawks will be more than happy to use their significant interior advantage against a team without a great post defender.
Thomas at point guard vs. Naadir Tharpe or Frank Mason may the the only matchup where Kansas St. should have the edge, Tharpe's 17-point game Wednesday notwithstanding. However, if Will Spradling plays significant minutes at the point for any reason, it suddenly becomes KU's favorite matchup.
As simplistic as it sounds, K-State will probably need to shoot the ball well from the outside (the 'Cats are still the worst 3-point shooting team in the Big 12 at 30%) and outwork Kansas on the boards. Oddly, all four teams to beat KU have shot worse than 42% from the field (38% for 3 of them), but all except the defensive machine of SDSU made at least 7 threes.
In an ideal world, Thomas Gipson would get Embiid into foul trouble, but this game is being played in Lawrence. It's fun to pretend K-State's 9-10 man rotation would give some sort of advantage over KU's 7-8 regulars, but that's mostly a pipe dream as well.
I would be pretty thrilled if K-State could at least keep it within single digits for the entire first half and then just go from there. Let's not forget the Wildcats were the last team to beat the Jayhawks in a home conference opener in a 59-55 game back on Jan. 14, 2006, and K-State also started KU's last two-game losing streak at Allen Fieldhouse with a 71-70 triumph on Jan. 28, 1989.