Obscured in the shadows of Manhattan stands college basketball’s most unassuming threat.
Big 12 dark horse Kansas State is one dangerous steed, if only to a degree that can’t yet be properly measured. Bruce Weber’s first year on the ranch has corresponded with a 24-5 start, a two-way tie atop the conference standings with one week left and a portfolio of work absent a bad loss. Four of the team’s five blemishes have come against teams jockeying for No. 1 seeds (Gonzaga, Michigan and Kansas x2) and a signature win over Florida in Kansas City augments a strong crop of complementary wins.
Don’t be fooled by the innocent veneer. These Wildcats are menacing. We just can’t tell yet if it’s a quick, fleeting scare or a sustainable danger. Consider it college basketball’s toughest success riddle to solve.
K-State leads the Big 12 in assist-to-turnover ratio, ranks tops in the league in turnover percentage differential and third in 3-point shooting. Credit the emergence of Shane Southwell and the continued hot hands of Will Spradling and Martavious Irving for turning last year’s biggest weakness — perimeter shooting — into a relative strength.
The Wildcats are a mostly mistake-free squad, which places the burden on their opponents to outplay them straight-up. Point guard play has improved as Angel Rodriguez has mended his passing, and A-Rod’s teammates have even chipped in to aid the cause. Five different Wildcats are averaging at least 2.0 assists per game, the only such team in the Big 12 with a starting lineup’s worth of willing distributors. As expected, K-State leads the Big 12 in assists per made field goal.
Perhaps most critical to Kansas State’s renaissance under Weber has been the identity of the team Frank Martin graciously left behind: a dogged commitment to rebounding. The Wildcats rank in the Top 10 nationally in offensive rebounding rate even without Jamar Samuels, the team’s top rebounder last season.
We can’t talk K-State without mentioning Rodney McGruder — the indispensable centerpiece around whom all the role players revolve. For a team heavy on specialty players and light on star power, McGruder is the do-everything linchpin equally capable of toting the scoring load and blanketing the opposing team’s top scorer.
Still, justifiable reservations about K-State’s viability remain. Fluky tendencies can’t be ignored.
Ken Pomeroy ranks Kansas State the 19th luckiest team in the country (out of 347), and not without good reason. The Wildcats are 5-0 in one-possession games and 12-2 in games decided by single digits this season. They’ve struggled against bottom-feeders the likes of Delaware, George Washington, Texas Southern, UMKC and West Virginia. Sure, Weber’s assembly has grown since — those close calls happened in the first two months of the season, after all — but the team is nonetheless a few bounces the other way from being 21-8 instead. That certainly changes the narrative, less the national perception.
Recently, K-State escaped Waco on a very fortuitous sequence, capped off by a clinching McGruder 3 to beat the buzzer. Tied at 61 with one second to play and Baylor in-bounding from under its own basket, the Bear in-bounder uncorked a full-court heave that sailed untouched out of bounds. The gaffe gave the Wildcats the ball back under Baylor’s hoop, then a Bears’ breakdown on defense (what else is new?) set up McGruder’s uncontested look at the rim. Voila.
Kansas State has the pieces in place to be a pesky out in March. Think a slightly less scrappy Butler, circa 2010-11. The jury is still out, however, on whether this is a team of destiny or merely a group fated for a cruel statistical correction, whose luck is about to expire.
These Cats from Manhattan have used up eight of their nine lives by now. What they do with their last chance is anyone’s best guess.