No one wants to think about football this week, with no game Saturday and the painful memory of the loss at TCU still reverberating in our heads. Luckily, we've got the start of basketball season for you, and in case you haven't been paying attention, this year's team offers plenty of reasons to be excited.
Will Spradling and Shane Southwell are gone, which is sad because they were two fixtures in the program who did so much for Kansas State.
But they've been replaced by another strong recruiting class, and this year's team should be much bigger and more athletic than the one that basically played with four guards and Thomas Gipson more often than not.
Freshman phenom Marcus Foster is back for a second season and poised to be even better, while newcomers such as Justin Edwards and Stephen Hurt could offer some much-needed offensive support for Bruce Weber.
But just like in Weber's first two seasons, there are plenty of questions surrounding this group, so let's get to them.
Respondents are Luke Thompson, TB, Curtis Kitchen and BracketCat.
As a former point guard who has seen otherwise solid Division I teams self-destruct without one, my biggest concern by far is who runs this offense. Can we trust Jevon Thomas? Nigel Johnson? Could Marcus Foster take over without diminishing his scoring ability or overall value?
LT: Seriously, you guys, I am really worried about this. Like, almost paranoid. It should be fine. Maybe. Best-case scenario is clearly Jevon or Nigel (hopefully Jevon, because he's got more upside) firmly takes the reins and leads the offense. Whoever it is needs to become a credible offensive threat (and shoot better than 70% from the free-throw line, Jevon) but the primary role should be distributing the ball to Foster and Justin Edwards on the wings. Those guys are the scorers, and while Foster could be a point down the road, this year it seems like that would be a desperation move destined to lead to problems.
TB: We're still in show-me mode with all the options, but I think Jevon Thomas will be serviceable as a point guard. He's the best on-ball defender of the bunch, and he should improve at protecting the ball and shooting, even if only marginally. He's not a dynamic point guard who's good at everything, but he'll probably work well enough. And Nigel Johnson is available to provide a boost if needed.
CK: If Foster is running the point, K-State is instantly a marginal team at best. Foster needs to be at the 2, working off screens. He's not a point guard. Period. That leaves Jevon and Nigel, and frankly, it was disappointing to see just how little progress Thomas made a year ago. What is worrisome with him is that his speed let him stand out in high school, but at this level, his actual game is average at best. That leaves one viable option at the point, and I don't think Nigel is the type of talent that you want to have to depend on playing 36 minutes per game. Luke, your worries are valid.
BC: I guess I am the optimist of the group, but I just have faith things will work themselves out somehow. I saw positives from both guards in Sunday's exhibition game. Jevon showed a nice jumper inside the arc, although he still can't finish on the drive or make 3s, and he fired some questionable passes in the second half. More encouraging was that Nigel's defense, which kept him off the court much of last year, seemed markedly improved.
And if I'm wrong, well, there's always Barry Brown in 2015-16...
Coach Weber finally has some serious size this season with 6-11 forwards Stephen Hurt and Brandon Bolden. Both of them even have played Division I ball before, which is nice. How much can we expect from them and who will be more productive in his first season as a Wildcat?
LT: Unfortunately, it doesn't look like we can expect either of these guys to be dominant, on-the-block bigs. Then again, in college basketball these days, those are going the way of hard, legal hits on NFL quarterbacks. Stephen Hurt could be a really nice alternative as more of a finesse player, so long as he can body up and defend on the defensive end. I'm not as optimistic about Brandon Bolden, who has the right body and athleticism, but very little proof of actual talent.
TB: Bolden will probably get pushed around a lot against any kind of decent competition. At 6'11", he could be our rim protector, but if he's a complete liability in every other aspect (rebounding, offense-like things), then there's not much value there. Hurt intrigues me. It sounds like he has nice touch. If he can stretch the court at the four, that would be a big advantage.
CK: I don't expect a lot offensively out of this duo, but it still will be an improvement over D.J. Johnson, who can't be counted on as a consistently viable threat to score. The biggest impact, I think, will be on defense, where the improved balance in athleticism and basketball IQ should be an anchor piece to Weber's defense as the season progresses.
BC: I actually think Hurt will be a big help on offense. He has a nice jumper, his range extends to the 3-point arc, he makes his free throws and he shows good touch around the rim. His defense worries me, though. On Sunday, he fouled too much and didn't use his big body well. He's weaker at rebounding right now than I like to see, too.
Bolden might be a nice player down the road, but right now, he's skinnier than a rail and he's missed a bunch of practice, too. Gipson and Hurt are going to get most of the minutes in the post.
D.J. Johnson is out for the season. There isn't a whole lot he does in the stat sheet that can't be replaced, but how much will K-State miss his energy and overall presence on the court or in the locker room?
LT: This might be an area where I'm more optimistic than most. Sure, energy guys are nice to have and can give the occasional boost, but I think they're overrated. The real value Johnson added last season was depth in the post, and K-State has a lot more of it this year. I'm not saying the Cats wouldn't be better off with D.J. and I certainly feel awful for him, this is a loss this team can certainly overcome.
TB: Energy guys probably have a tendency toward being overrated, but this is a big loss. He's an athletic guy who was the closest thing we had to a rim-protector last year. His numbers weren't great, but you'd expect them to improve with more playing time (he averaged on 13.9 minutes per game last year). Not a game-breaker, but he would've been the third or fourth most valuable returner this year (after Foster, Gipson, and probably Thomas), so that's a not-insignificant loss.
CK: Negligible. As TB mentioned, his production was going to be such this year that whatever his best contribution was going to be (energy, team presence, etc.), he can do from the bench.
BC: Because of the addition of Hurt and Nino Williams still having one more year, we can weather this. Wesley Iwundu's growth as a swing-forward defender and rebounder are key, though. Any more significant injuries, and our depth truly might be impacted going forward. I didn't like seeing Edwards play the 4 on Sunday and I don't want to see it ever again.
Wesley Iwundu was Kansas State's second-most impressive freshman last season and showed some flashes of being great. Is he destined for a breakout year?
LT: I might be more inclined to say yes if we hadn't just waited three years for the Shane Southwell breakout year that never came. The athleticism is there, and at least Iwundu seems much more aware on the court than Shane did most nights. Iwundu will definitely be better and will have fewer stupid mistakes. But the real key will be whether his shot becomes more consistent, which could make him a very serious offensive threat.
TB: Iwundu has the advantage of working with a coaching staff that is better with player development than the staff for which Southwell played most of his career. And there was a reason Southwell earned the nickname "The Paradox" here. If Iwundu's inconsistency last year was due to being a true freshman, which seems plausible, he very well could be due for a breakout.
CK: I don't feel that way this year, but I'd buy listening to "breakout" candidate a year from now. The flashes were more flicker-ish to me, and Wes needs to continue to develop physically. That doesn't mean he hasn't improved over the summer, and if he has, then those flickers and flashes should start becoming solid stretches of good play.
BC: Hard to say with him starting the season on the bench with an undisclosed injury. I personally think Iwundu can make great strides this year, and he was a hell of a find already, but he disappeared in some big games last season. Consistency is the key. I think he can be a great junior in 2015-16, that's for sure.
Omari Lawrence and Nino Williams both played key roles as (primarily) bench players last season, with especially Williams sometimes stepping up to make big shots or play important minutes. Should those roles change this season with all the new faces, or is K-State better off if Williams and Lawrence's replacement(s) can be kept in their spots?
LT: I'm afraid we'll always be wondering what could have been for Nino if it weren't for all his injury issues. When at his best, he could score in a variety of ways and provided an instant spark on both ends of the floor. Sadly, those may be even rarer this season, and it's tough to see him developing the consistency that would ever earn him a spot in the lineup.
TB: No idea. I'm sure Nino will keep getting playing time because he's been around so long and provides value because of it, but if the new guys push him out because they're just flat-out better, then so much the better for the team's results.
CK: Nino's been in the system now for several years. He's able to handle his own physically for the most part. He is in a perfect spot to really help to set this group's identity as he plays hard and tries to be a little intimidating. I don't think anyone should harbor false thoughts of grandeur that he is going to be some sort of superstar, but he can definitely help keep a Marcus Foster's mindset sharp throughout the season.
BC: I think Nino and Gip have key roles to play as seniors, inheriting the mantle of Will, Omari and Shane. But a sleeper pick to fill Omari's role as a physical defensive presence off the bench is Malek Harris. A 6-foot-8 freshman who already has a nice frame with some muscle on it, Harris is Weber's highest-ranked recruit to date. And virtually no one is talking about him. I think he can be the surprise of the league, even in limited minutes this season.
A year ago, for better or for worse, freshmen averaged close to 30 points and 10 rebounds per game. The newcomers this season are more experienced, but they've also got more proven help. How much production does K-State need from the new guys and where do you expect it to come from?
LT: Ideally, the added experience from this year's group will help us to avoid growing pains such as the loss to Northern Colorado, being embarrassed by Georgetown and six straight Big 12 road losses after winning in an empty arena in Fort Worth. Considering two of them (Edwards and Hurt) should start, the production might actually end up being similar. Don't expect it to happen right away, but there are some good scorers in this group, and they're going to have a big impact.
TB: The nice part is that several of these guys practiced with the program all year last year, so you'd expect they wouldn't have the growing pains Foster and Iwundu with which dealt. Not sure I can quantify what we'll need from them, but my hope is they adjust to the game at this level quickly and perform at a consistent level.
CK: If Foster, Iwundu and Williams are doing their thing, then it will take a lot of pressure off the new guys. That said, if Bolden or Hurt wants to assert himself as a go-to offensive threat (which I don't believe will happen; not soon anyways), then use it. As I said earlier, I really think the new guys' biggest impact will be defensively.
BC: Hurt and Edwards should be key cogs in this team. If they aren't something went horribly wrong. Bolden is nice to have on the bench, but likely won't contribute much. I think the two Harrises offer key roles deeper in the bench. I addressed Malek above, but Tre Harris showed some nice things Sunday and looks to the be the sharpshooter we need to keep defenses honest. KU always has one of those guys. It's about time we got one of our own.
OK. It's prediction time. The Cats have a challenging, but not overly difficult nonconference schedule, featuring a potential meeting with No. 2 Arizona in Maui and a tough road test at Tennessee. Then there's the Big 12, with its four teams ranked in the top 20, plus two others (not including K-State) receiving votes. Where does this team end up at the end of December, in the conference standings and finally, how far can they go in the postseason?
LT: I'm already bracing for a blowout at the hands of the other Wildcats. That Purdue team should be really bad, so K-State could be 3-0, but just remember not to be too upset about a big loss in Maui. Between a third-place game against Pitt, BYU or San Diego State and three SEC opponents, most notably Tennessee on the road, it's tough to imagine the Cats getting to Big 12 play without at least three losses. A strong start to a back-loaded Big 12 schedule will be critical and even could lead to a third-place finish, although fourth is probably more likely.
This team should be better than last year, so anything less than an NCAA Tourney bid would have to be considered a major disappointment. As for how K-State will go, I really don't feel like making any predictions after seeing them be seeded too low and matched up against the eventual runner-up in the first round. Yeah, I'm still bitter, Selection Committee.
TB: A 10-3 non-conference record seems reasonable, and would be comparable to last year's 11-3 non-conference record, less the embarrassing home-opener loss (I hope). In conference, I think 12-6 is a reasonable aspiration, and a 23-9 record probably lands this team a seed in the 5-8 range, depending on whether they have any marquee wins.
CK: With multiple new pieces in the frontcourt, I think this group loses one or two it shouldn't in the non-con as roles and an identity are figured out. As some people yell for Weber to be fired by that point, the team will get into conference play, where it will likely be at or just above .500, but with momentum building toward March. The Cats will get into the NCAA Tourney, but after a lackluster season by national standards, a tough matchup in the second or third round likely will put a cap on the season.
BC: Man, what a bunch of Debbie Downers in here. I think we can get out of Maui 2-1 with a pair of decent wins in our pocket, and I have no respect whatsoever for SEC basketball, so chalk me up as expecting no more than one or maybe two losses in the non-conference.
As far as conference play, although it will be brutal, many teams took a step back from last year due to graduation (Baylor, Iowa State, Oklahoma State) or the transfer bug (Texas Tech, West Virginia). Only KU has proved persistently immune to either ailment in the past decade. After them and Texas, I don't see a lot to fear, and I even expect us to beat Texas in Bramlage.
The tournament's a crapshoot, but this really needs to be the year Bruce wins at least one NCAA game and sets up a big season in 2015-16, or else the unfavorable comparisons to Frank and Co. are going to get really heated in spite of all the good he has done on the court and in recruiting.
In a sentence or less, who has the best chance to finally knock Kansas off its perch in the Big 12?
LT: Texas returns all five players in a talented starting lineup and freshman Jordan Barnett put together an entire season's worth of highlights in the state championship game.
TB: Texas is the best bet, but until it actually happens, I'll remain skeptical.
CK: Texas. Easily. Iowa State will again be kinda neat, and Oklahoma will be solid, but the Longhorns successfully gutted the interior of that program and installed a whole new blue-collar attitude to the point that it is again fun for Rick Barnes to coach.
BC: In three words: The Big 12. By which I mean, it will take all of us knocking those punks off at home to dethrone them at last. If K-State, Iowa State, Texas and West Virginia can repeat last year's performances against the Beakers, and OU finally figures out how to play a modicum of defense against them, then it can (and will) be done.