Defense a focus at Big 12 tournament

By Joel Jellison

For five years, Kansas State built a reputation on defense. But in the last two games, it has seemed to wane.

The Wildcats (25-6, 14-4) struggled to put TCU away on senior night, and then couldn’t stop Oklahoma State from spoiling their season finale on the road.

As the attention shifts to tonight’s Big 12 quarterfinal game against Texas, coach Bruce Weber said they need to get back to playing good defense in a hurry.

“We’ve got to stop people,” he said. “The last two games we have not done too well. We were fortunate enough to play TCU at home and had enough to win the game. You played with Oklahoma State, but just too many layups, and you cant beat a good team like that.”

When the season began in November, K-State was a defensive-minded squad that was still learning the ways of its new offensive scheme. In late December, the team began to grasp the offense and became tough for teams to beat.

But in a strange shift over the past few games, the Wildcats seemed to become as offensive-minded as ever, and their defense has suffered.

Weber said some of it might have to do with where the team is physically. Will Spradling has been limited with a chest injury, while Jordan Henriquez has a nagging back injury. Angel Rodriguez has battled an injured left wrist, and then there are the wears and tears a team experiences 31 games into the season.

“I think we were in a very good team defensive concept,” he said. “I think what hurt us the other night is people don’t realize Will is probably our best team defensive player. He covers up for a lot of people’s mistakes, and then you miss (Henriquez) too. We have to do a good job of protecting the paint.”

To track the problems in the paint you have to go back to the Baylor game on March 2. Isaiah Austin took advantage of a mismatch on the inside to score over Shane Southwell, and Cory Jefferson shifted momentum a number of times with electrifying dunks. And then there was the end of the game, when Pierre Jackson drove the lane at will and finished with a foul or basket.

Against Oklahoma State on Saturday, it was Le’Bryan Nash who scored on the inside. And when K-State when on a run early in the second half, Michael Cobbins scored a few buckets to keep the Cowboys in the game.

Southwell said he feels like much of the blame falls square on his shoulders.

“Most of it I feel like is me because I’ve been guarding bigger guys and Nash got the best of me, Isaiah (Austin) got the best of me,” he said. “I can’t let that happen.”

Defense has been the hot topic from K-State players and coaches since Saturday’s loss to the Cowboys, and Angel Rodriguez said they spent nearly one whole practice getting back to basics on defense. Weber said Spradling, who still isn’t fully practicing, did individual defensive drills.

Rodriguez said it’s something they have to get turned around.

“We feel like we’ve been slacking a little bit on defense and it’s something we definitely don’t want to do at this point in the season,” he said. “We focus a lot on defense and we’ve got to make some adjustments.”

Southwell said this year will be a different experience for the Big 12 tournament, because as the No. 2 seed, K-State is one of the favorites to win. It’s something that only the three seniors have experienced before, when they were part of a squad that advanced to the tournament title game and lost to Kansas in their freshman year.

Senior Rodney McGruder said they know what to expect from this week.

“We know we’re going to have a lot of support from our fans, and we also know it’s a brand new season,” he said. “We know we just have to bring our A-game and do the things that we’re capable of.”

The Wildcats have the chance to improve their chances at playing in Kansas City again this next week for the second and third rounds of the NCAA tournament with a good performance this week.

But Thomas Gipson said it isn’t something they’re even thinking about, as they go on a quest for a second title.

“We just take it one game at a time,” he said. “We’re worried about the Big 12 tournament right now, we aren’t even worried about March Madness.”

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