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Jellison: December important for K-State

By Joel Jellison

Let’s be honest, November was basically a disaster for the Kansas State men’s basketball team.

Thomas Gipson was hurt from the start, and the Wildcats struggled to find any sort of identity in losing their opening game to Northern Colorado.

Then, looking to turn it all around in Puerto Rico, K-State beat itself against Charlotte and got pounded by Georgetown.

But along with December came a chance to turn it around. The Wildcats won the first two of their seven games this month, including a resume-building win over Ole Miss last week that was televised nationally.

Still, the Wildcats head in to Tuesday’s game against South Dakota — at 7 p.m. in Bramlage Coliseum — at 5-3 on the year, needing to win as much as possible before they hit the Big 12 schedule in January.

The road ahead isn’t easy.

The final four games of the month will feature a group of teams that are of at least the Mid-Major level, or above. The schedule starts with Troy at home, then Gonzaga in Wichita, Tulane in Brooklyn and George Washington back at home.

In some ways, the schedule is more than favorable for a K-State team that features a mix of young, still inexperienced playmakers, and veteran roleplayers along with Gipson, whose star is shining most brightly for the Wildcats right now as the team’s leader.

That’s why the Gonzaga game might be the one that tells how far coach Bruce Weber has brought his team from its shaky pre-Thanksgiving start.

Last year, the Wildcats faced a highly-ranked Florida team in Kansas City during the month of December, in a game that proved to be a bit of a trap for the Gators. K-State went on to win the game in front of a supportive crowd, and the victory was seen as a launching point towards a Big 12 championship-winning season.

When the Wildcats take the court in Wichita on Dec. 21, the situation will be similar. K-State will be looking for another signature win before they open the Big 12 season, and it would be a high mark for their March resume.

November wasn’t just hard on the team, it was hard on its supporters, too. The early start followed with small crowds inside Bramlage Coliseum. And it wasn’t until last week’s game against the Rebels that students showed up in numbers, mostly to jeer Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson.

After that game, Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said the atmosphere was unlike any they see throughout their SEC schedule, creating a fun, college environment. Weber said he hoped they could keep playing well enough to keep the students and other fans coming.

The crowds brought to the team an energy that they’ve been unable to create and sustain on their own. And that energy is something Weber knows can play into how intense the team plays, especially defensively.

If Weber proved anything last season, it was that his K-State teams would keep the defensive mentality that his predecessors’ teams did, allowing the Wildcats to be in far more games than they’re out of, i.e. giving them a chance to win more often than getting blown out.

No, this team might not be built like last year’s and the league is different. But they could still manage to be competitive with a strong defensive prowess. And the Wildcats will need every win they can get before January.

The Big 12 is starting to look even tougher than it did before the season started. Everyone knew Kansas was bringing in a recruiting class led by top-NBA prospect Andrew Wiggins. Oklahoma State was returning all its stars, including Marcus Smart. And Baylor was still loaded with talented big men.

But Iowa State’s been even better than expected, knocking off ranked team after ranked team, building up a high RPI. Oklahoma looks strong defensively, and West Virginia appears vastly improved.

That’s exactly why December is so important for the Wildcats. They need to win now, and get their kinks worked out while they still have a chance. They need to be ready from the get-go when 2014 begins.

If the Wildcats hope to make it to the NCAA tournament in March, they need to care of business in December. If they do, it will pay dividends come next month.

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