The non-conference schedule is over and it’s time for Kansas State’s second season — conference play.
The Wildcats won’t have an easy start to their Big 12 Conference schedule either, as they take on No. 22 Oklahoma State on Saturday at 12:30 at Bramlage Coliseum.
The Cowboys are one of just three ranked teams — Kansas and K-State — in the Big 12, and one of just four teams from the conference projected to make the NCAA tournament by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.
So obviously, Saturday’s Big 12 opener gives the Wildcats an early chance to see where they sit among the conference’s projected top teams. And a chance to earn a big win from the get-go.
The Cowboys are an athletic group led by sophomore Le’Bryan Nash, a versatile player that averages 14.4 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. The scoring doesn’t end there for Oklahoma State, as the rest of the backcourt is putting together solid numbers as well.
Junior Markel Brown is scoring 14.2 points per game, while do-it-all freshman Marcus Smart is scoring 13.4 points and adding 6.2 rebounds and 5.2 assists.
K-State coach Bruce Weber said the Cowboys backcourt is amazing, and the team as a whole is impressive.
“Not only are they good offensively, but they are good defensively,” he said. “They keep talking about Smart being one of the best leaders. I was around him a little bit with USA Basketball, he has a great attitude and work ethic. He played every day. He did not care if it was the beginning of practice or the end of practice, he plays at the same level.
“They have some depth and versatility. Smart can hurt you in a lot of ways. (Phil) Forte can really shoot and Brown gives them some athleticism. I am impressed by their bigs, length and defense.”
Oklahoma State’s weakness might be on the boards. When they’ve struggled this season, it’s been in games where they were outrebounded.
With the Wildcats being ranked among the best in offensive rebounding — tied for second in the nation at 16.7 — junior forward Shane Southwell said rebounding could be one of the most important factors in the game.
“That is something that we do and it is one of our biggest strengths,” he said. “Defense and offensive rebounding are our strengths. We just have to keep doing it and keep fighting. We need to get on the glass and keep pounding teams out.”
The Wildcats are coming off a pair of performances that asked more questions than they answered. After the Wildcats defeated top 10-ranked Florida on Dec. 22, they struggled in a tight game against UMKC and needed a late run to finally separate from South Dakota.
K-State played both games without the services of Angel Rodriguez — a usual starter — and Martavious Irving — a senior — who were injured prior to the UMKC game. Adding to Rodriguez’s issues were travel issues following Christmas as he tried to get back before the Dec. 29, game against Kansas City.
The beginning of the Big 12 schedule features one game in the first 12 days of January. After Saturday’s game with the Cowboys, the Wildcats won’t have another game until Jan. 12, when they travel to West Virginia.
Weber said there are positives and negatives to the break, but it will allow his team time to get completely healthy.
“I thought we had made some progress up to the Florida game, and then you have some setbacks with the traveling and the injuries,” he said. “I did not like the setup of the schedule going into it. Now you have a little time here and next week to allow Angel and Martavious to get back. Hopefully we can take advantage of that.
“This is the last time where you can really have some practice time. We have to see what happens with Tay and Angel. We need them, we can grind and fight without them but if we are going to be really good, we need those guys. When they all played well, we beat Florida. If that happens on a consistent basis, we can be good.”
Whether they have Rodriguez or Irving available for Saturday or not, senior Rodney McGruder said getting the crowd involved early could be an important factor.
After watching basketball over the past week, McGruder said the excitement for Big 12 play has been high.
“I am excited and can’t wait,” he said. “The other day before we played I was watching a couple of games and it just got me amped up and ready for conference play. I am excited.”