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Kansas State Basketball: 2019 NCAA Tournament preview of the Wildcats

KANSAS CITY, MO - MARCH 09: Dean Wade #32 of the Kansas State Wildcats grabs a rebound during the quarterfinal game of the Big 12 Basketball Tournament against the Baylor Bears at the Sprint Center on March 9, 2017 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MO - MARCH 09: Dean Wade #32 of the Kansas State Wildcats grabs a rebound during the quarterfinal game of the Big 12 Basketball Tournament against the Baylor Bears at the Sprint Center on March 9, 2017 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /

Kansas State Basketball in the NCAA Tournament for a third straight year. Who are the key players for the Wildcats to make a run?

It hasn’t been easy, but the Kansas State Wildcats are dancing in the NCAA Tournament for a third straight year. The Wildcats, who are not very deep, had to deal with injuries throughout the year. Star forward Dean Wade missed eight games during two different stints while sixth-man Cartier Diarra was out from early February to the start of the Big 12 conference tournament.

There were extremely high expectations for KSU to start the season. The Wildcats were coming off its best season since coach Bruce Weber’s first year with the program in 2012-13. Last year, the Wildcats went 25-10 and reached the Elite Eight. They returned their top six players from the squad in 2018-19.

Kansas State entered the season ranked 12th in the Associated Press poll, marking the first time since the 2010-11 campaign that the Wildcats were ranked in the AP preseason poll. The Cats began the season with six straight wins which included capturing the Paradise Jam Tournament title. KSU then dropped back-to-back road games to Marquette and inexplicably to Tulsa.

Kansas St. closed out the nonconference campaign by winning four of five. The Wildcats biggest early season win came against Missouri in the Paradise Jam Final. The Cats non-conference schedule was just the 184th toughest in the country, according to KenPom.com.

KSU started Big 12 play with a loss to Texas Tech (63-57). But the Wildcats (25-8) got on a roll with the return of Wade, who had missed the previous six games, and lost just three more times over the final 17 regular season games. Kansas St. and Texas Tech ultimately ended up at 14-4 in conference play, thus sharing the Big 12 regular season title — and ending Kansas’ 14-year reign atop of the conference. The conference title was the Cats’ 19th all-time, although it was their first since 2013.

The Wildcats earned the top seed for the Big 12 conference tournament due to their sweep of Baylor — The Red Raiders split their two matchups with the Bears. KSU defeated seventh-seed TCU in the quarterfinals. However, the Cats fell to fifth-seed Iowa State in the semis. KSU has never won a Big 12 Tournament title and is 13-22 in tournament play, including 0-2 in championship games. The Big 12 conference was established in 1996-97.

No. 15 Kansas St. is making its 31st all-time NCAA Tournament appearance where the Wildcats are 37-34 all-time which includes four Final Four appearances. The Wildcats 4-4 in the NCAA Tournament under Weber.

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KSU was one of six Big 12 teams to get an NCAA Tournament bid and the Wildcats earned a No. 4 seed in the Southeast Region. The Cats will play No. 13 UC-Irvine (30-5) in San Jose, Calif., on March 22. The Anteaters is making its second NCAA Tournament appearance ever after winning both the Big West regular and conference tournament titles. Irvine enters the tournament on a 16 game winning streak.

Players to watch

Barry Brown Jr.: The 6’3″ senior guard is an excellent two-way player who is the Wildcats most important player. Brown, the team’s leading scorer, is the only player on the team who can create his shot as well as has the ability to take over a game. He led the Cats in scoring 11 times, which includes topping the 20-point mark on seven occasions. Kansas St. is 9-2 when Brown leads the team in scoring and 6-1 when he scores at least 20.

Dean Wade: The 6’10” senior forward is the Wildcats’ best player overall. He is a fantastic shooter who can score inside or out. Wade is also a terrific passer as well as a solid defender. There is concern regarding his health, Wade (foot) missed the Big 12 Tournament due to the injury and his status is currently up in the air for the NCAA Tournament.

Xavier Snead: The 6’5″ junior forward is perhaps the Wildcats best all-around player. He stepped up  his production in games that Wade has missed. Snead scored in double-figures on four occasions and grabbed six or more rebounds in six of the eight games that Wade was unavailable for the Wildcats. For the season, the St. Louis native has scored in double-figures 17 times and hauled in 10 or more rebounds twice.

Kamau Stokes: The 6-foot senior point guard is the floor general who is responsible for controlling the tempo of the game on both ends of the court for the Wildcats. He is the Wildcats best 3-point shooter making two treys a game at a 36.2% clip and he also does a good job at setting others up.  Stokes has scored in double-figures 20 times, tallying 15 or more points on eight occasions. Five of the Cats losses have come when the Baltimore native has either not played or failed to score in double figures.

Makol Mawein: The 6-foot-9 junior forward anchors the Wildcats’ defense as he is an excellent rim-protector and a very good defensive rebounder. He is not much of an offensive factor, although he is a good finisher around the rim. Mawein has scored in double figures 11 times this season, including in three of his last four appearances.

Cartier Diarra: The 6’4″ sophomore guard has made his most significant impact this year on the defensive end, ranking in the top-20 in the Big 13in steal percentage, block percentage, defensive rating, and defensive box plus/minus. However, he has stepped up his offensive production lately.

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Diarra has scored in double-figures in five of his last six contests as he has shot the ball well during this stretch, making 16 of his last 34 (47%) shot attempts including 10 of 19 ( 52.6%)from beyond the arc.