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Cats face challenge vs. Gonzaga

By Joel Jellison

It’ll either answer some questions or raise even more.

Staff photo by Fran Ruchalski
(Kansas State freshman guard Marcus Foster brings the ball down the court against Troy last Sunday at Bramlage Coliseum. The Wildcats face Gonzaga on Saturday in Wichita).

Saturday’s game against No. 21 Gonzaga will show just how far the Kansas State men’s basketball team has come since it’s rocky 2-3 start to the season.

Since then, the Wildcats have won five in a row, including a win over Ole Miss, their lone marquee win of the season.

But when K-State takes the floor at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, they will be facing a Bulldogs team loaded with experience, and loaded with height.

Second-year K-State coach Bruce Weber expects his team to be in for a challenge.

“They’ve been so consistent,” he said. “They have always been a good offensive team. Right now they are up in the top 10 in the country in 3-point percentage, scoring, and all those types of things. They have good offensive weapons. The thing that I have watched and admired from (Gonzaga coach Mark Few) is that they have gotten really good defensively over the years.”

The Bulldogs are led by dynamic scorer Kevin Pangos, who is putting up just shy of 20 points per game. Fellow guard Gary Bell Jr. is scoring 14.5 per contest.

Senior guard Will Spradling said most of the challenge in the backcourt is going against experienced players who have been in Gonzaga’s starting lineup for awhile.

“They are older guards,” he said. “They have been there for a few years now. I remember playing (David) Stockton my freshman year. So they have been around. They know how to play the game, and they are fearless. They are not afraid to shoot any shot. I know Pangos is scoring over 20 points a game. So he is playing really well.”

But what worries Weber is the Bulldogs’ length.

The Bulldogs boast a three guard, two center lineup, with big men Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski in the post. Dower, at 6-foot-9, and Karnowski, at 7-1, will give the Wildcats a challenge they haven’t seen since they faced Georgetown in Puerto Rico.

“Their big fella is huge, and it’s tough to matchup even if you have a big guy because they have such good guards,” Weber said. “They have guards that can shoot, guards that can penetrate, and they spread the defense. You cannot say you are going to go help this guy on the big guy. That’s a tough matchup.”

Junior forward Thomas Gipson said he understands he has a tough day ahead of him.

“This is going to be a major test for our bigs, and we are up to the challenge,” he said. “They are real good. They can go right, left shoulder, 15-foot jump shot, and all that. We are going to be ready for them.”

Weber said a key will be to control the Bulldogs’ transition offense, an area that’s hurt them at times this season. Although they won games against Ole Miss and South Dakota, both teams took advantage of lax transition defense by the Wildcats to score quick points.

Last season the Wildcats traveled out west to play Gonzaga in Seattle, and came back beaten up by a 68-52 loss. But the game was never really that close. After the loss, the Wildcats rattled off eight straight wins, including one over No. 8 Florida in Kansas City.

As the Bulldogs come to Wichita to return the neutral-site game favor, senior guard Shane Southwell said there was plenty to learn from last year’s loss.

“They just dominated us, especially their bigs,” Southwell said. “They don’t have the same bigs, but they are still really good. Their guards have gotten better and older. Altogether they are still really good. They still have the same coach, so they will always be a really good team. It’s another chance for us to go undefeated in December, and get a tournament-resume win.”

The Wildcats will have an eligible Jevon Thomas when they take the court on Saturday, as his eligibility ban will come to an end on gameday. He is not expected to see much playing time, though, as it will also be the first day he will be eligible to practice with the team.

After the Gonzaga game, the Wildcats will have a few days of practice before heading to Brooklyn to play Tulane in another neutral-site game.

As Thomas learns Weber’s motion offense system, his minutes in the rotation are likely to rise quickly.

“We will be a complete team, that is our true point guard,” K-State junior forward Thomas Gipson said of Thomas. “We are still winning without him. We will get more wins with him. Things are going to be better for us on offense and defense. Everybody is expecting a lot. He is real good on defense. He is talented on offense. We are ready for him.”

Since the beginning of the season, the Wildcats have been leaning on Spradling playing point guard, while Nigel Johnson has been his exclusive backup. However, every guard on the team, and a few forwards, have brought the ball up court at times.

“The transition for us as a team is going to be difficult, because he is a lot faster than our point guard right now,” Southwell said. “It will be different, but he can help us. He will have an impact on the first game, not even offensively. He is a very good on-ball defender. That is something we are going to need.”

It will be the first game in Wichita since the Wildcats dropped a double overtime thriller to West Virginia on Dec. 8, 2011. But it will be Weber’s first trip to Wichita since he was the head coach at Southern Illinois, and it will be his first experience with Intrust Bank Arena.

Weber said he’s heard about the atmosphere from the game against the Mountaineers — which pitted Frank Martin against mentor/ex-K-State coach Bob Huggins — and he’s hoping for a similar environment this time too.

“You have a great team obviously in Gonzaga — one of the top names in basketball over the last 10-15 years — I hope we get a lot of people there,” he said. “(It’s) a national TV audience, so it should be a good opportunity for our guys. I have seen the building, but I’ve not been in it.”

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