The Kansas State men’s basketball team, essentially, has two big men this year.
Those two are Thomas Gipson and DJ Johnson. And as the season quickly approaches, their roles are looking like they’ll be as big as ever.
Yes, Gipson has been a starter for the Wildcats before — with 14 starts last season — but now he’ll be needed for more minutes. And he’s ready to take on that challenge.
Gipson, who averaged 7.9 points per game and five rebounds mostly off the bench last season, lost even more weight in the offseason, duplicating what he did a season ago in search of more stamina.
Last year, when Weber arrived, Gipson was asked to lose weight as he neared closer to the 300-pound mark. He obliged, but than slowly started to gain it back.
This time around, Gipson said he’s shed nearly 35 pounds, down to less than 265 pounds.
The benefits, he said, have been noticeable — more stamina, but no loss in strength.
“It’s always better with more stamina with basketball,” he said. “But I will always have my strength and my size — that never went away. I am light on my feet, I jump quicker, I am jumping higher. I am not as winded as I used to be running up and down the court. I feel lighter and a lot better about myself, and it’s just boosting my confidence.”
Senior Shane Southwell said he saw Gipson prior to when the forward left to play in Lithuania during the summer, and the weight loss had slowly begun. But the first time he saw him when Gipson returned from his trip overseas, it was as if half of the junior forward had stayed in Lithuania.
Weight loss has been a focus for several players on the K-State roster, leading to an overall more athletic team. Coach Bruce Weber said his team hopes to be able to run the floor more, and Gipson wants to be a part of that.
Gipson said it’s made workouts more exciting, and makes the team a little unpredictable.
“Everybody can dunk, everybody is quick, and everybody is fast,” he said. “I think this is the most athletic team I have been a part of since high school. It’s really fun, you don’t know who is going to get dunked on, and you don’t know who is going to dunk. But when it happens, it happens and it’s really cool.”
With the graduation of center Jordan Henriquez, Gipson said he feels like he has to step up and be a leader, not only in the frontcourt, but for the team.
Although the team has three seniors to carry the torch of leadership, Gipson said it’s on him to provide a source of vocal leadership that might be missing from last year’s group.
Gipson said he can feel the weight to pick up where last year’s trio of seniors left off with their leadership.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” he said. “I was just talking to my coaches about that. They just keep telling me to try and be a leader and stay on the right path and do the right thing. I have always been a leader — in high school I was a leader. Last year, Rodney (McGruder) was a leader — he has always been a leader. I think it’s about time that I do step in and try to be a leader for this team.”
The loss of Henriquez leaves the Wildcats undersized, with both Gipson and Johnson measuring less than 6-foot-10. The one benefit they both will have in practice is in Georgetown transfer Brandon Bolden, who stands 6-foot-11 and offers K-State’s posts a player to practice against.
Johnson averaged 2.3 points and 2.5 rebounds as a freshman last season, playing in 30 games. Gipson said Johnson has improved his knowledge of the game during the offseason and the way he plays under the basket.
“He always plays hard,” he said. “I think he improved most with touch around the rim. The fact that he always plays hard is going to be good for him. Getting touches around the rim is going to be really good for him.”
Gipson said the biggest challenge for the team this season will be staying together and staying focused. Picked to finish in the middle of the Big 12 pack, Gipson said they have to play their game and see how it plays out, just like last year.
“No matter what we are picked, we are always going to come out and play hard,” he said. “I don’t think there is a big major focus on what we need to do. As long as we are together and we are doing the right things on the court and off of the court, we will be fine.”