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Jellison: Wildcats making strides

By Joel Jellison

During my drive back from Saturday’s win over Gonzaga, I had a lot of time to think about the game.

Part of that was due to the near blizzard conditions that made the drive from Wichita to Salina take 2 1/2 hours, and forced me to stay the night in Salina and get off the near un-drivable roads.

But enough about that death-defying trip, let’s focus back on what this column is all about — the men’s basketball team.

Some of you might remember back at the beginning of the month I wrote how important December could be after the Wildcats dismal 2-3 start to the season.

And even with games against Tulane and George Washington before the month ends, Saturday’s 72-62 win over Gonzaga sure made November seem like a long, long time ago.

The Wildcats are currently sitting at 8-3, winners of their last six games, and 5-0 in this month alone.

Junior forward Thomas Gipson was the guy who seemed to be heading up the 7-0 in December campaign, and now K-State is two wins away from doing just that.

Head coach Bruce Weber said even when they were struggling early, sans Gipson the first few games, the team and coaching staff knew they had a better product than what they were displaying on the court.

“We thought we were better than our start and obviously we were a new team and when we did not have Gipson early on, we lost some games,” Weber said. “If he plays, we probably win two of those earlier games and it might have been a different mindset. We learned from it and I think we were humbled and embarrassed in Puerto Rico and we came back and have been much better in practice and much more focused.”

The Wildcats beat Gonzaga much in the way they beat Florida last year. K-State was sound, committing its fewest turnovers in a game since 2010. They played tight, stingy defense, and they let the Bulldogs beat themselves with turnovers.

Going into the game, it would have been hard to imagine the Wildcats could shut down the scoring tandem of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. But they did it. The same way they’ve been quietly containing every opponent’s top playmakers since the month began.

When Frank Martin was the coach at K-State, his teams made their living on playing good defense, and creating offense through it. Weber has managed to continue that intensity, even by tweaking it to his own philosophy.

“We knew it was going to be a tough, physical matchup,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “That is how Bruce’s teams always play.”

Senior guard Shane Southwell said they’ve shown the nation since Puerto Rico that their defense can give anyone fits.

“I think that everyone has seen how great of a defensive team we are and honestly as a program we feel really good,” he said. “Basically, coach (Chris) Lowery and coach Weber asked us who was going to break first being that we are one of the better defensive teams in the country and they are one of the better offensive teams in the country, so it was all about who was going to break first.”

The Bulldogs broke first, as Pangos and Bell were held scoreless in the first half, and Gonzaga lost leading frontcourt man Sam Dower to an injury at the end of the first half.

Although the Bulldogs came out to play in the second half, not letting themselves lose all grip on momentum after a highlight dunk from K-State freshman Marcus Foster, the Wildcats made all the plays at the end of the game to give Weber his second signature win in December in just two years.

For some reason or another, this month just seems to be the one that Weber-coached teams at K-State will start to find their groove and improve. Of course, I’m judging that off nearly the smallest sample size possible — two years — and the Wildcats still have two games against teams that are far from slouches.

Tulane is the member of a major conference in Conference USA, and have routinely played close games to a 7-6 record. And George Washington, the Wildcats final opponent of 2013, is 10-1 going into its own game on Dec. 28.

In fact, the Colonials might end up being the toughest team the Wildcats face this month, boasting resume-building wins over Miami, Maryland and Creighton already this season.

But if the Wildcats can get through the month with two more wins, they will head into Big 12 play with a solid 10-3 non-conference record. From there, the Wildcats might control their destiny toward making the NCAA tournament.

They’ll have a resume with a few quality wins, and if they play like they did against the Bulldogs, they could even produce a couple more upsets over top Big 12 teams.

After the way this season started, if the Wildcats can complete that turnaround to the tournament, this could be an even better coaching job than Weber did last season — coaching a group of another coach’s players to the Big 12 regular season title.

The table is set again for Weber and his team. Now it’s up to them to do what they can with the opportunity that remains ahead.

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