In the past month, Kansas State men’s basketball coach Bruce Weber struggled with the decision of whether or not to use a redshirt on freshman forward DJ Johnson.
After Sunday’s exhibition game against Emporia State, Weber said the decision he made was the right one.
Johnson scored a game-high 17 points and pulled down nine rebounds in 18 minutes in an 81-51 win over the Hornets at Bramlage Coliseum.
Weber said Johnson has impressed the coaches too much to redshirt this season.
“The best thing about him is that he’s a happy warrior,” Weber said. “He comes in every day and plays hard, he’s happy and likes K-State. He was at the football game (Saturday) night. In the fourth quarter he was doing the Wabash, and having fun. He came today and played with the same energy — that’s what you want out of guys.”
It would take a while for the Wildcats to get going. Getting Johnson on the floor helped that. K-State’s start was far different on Sunday than its first exhibition game against Washburn when the Cats jumped out to a 22-2 lead. Instead, Emporia State hit two early 3s to lead 6-4 as the clock went under 15 minutes.
K-State then went on a 9-1 run featuring five points from Johnson, who would score 14 points in the first half.
Trailing 18-11, the Hornets turned in an 8-0 run to take a 19-18 lead, forcing Weber to call a timeout.
The game would change from there. K-State responded out of the timeout, as Thomas Gipson sparked a 16-1 run with back-to-back buckets, putting K-State up 34-20.
“We made the game a little interesting in the first half, we had the lead 19-18, coach called a timeout and made some adjustments, and from that point on they took the game over with their physical play, especially on the boards,” Emporia State coach Shaun Vandiver said. “I have to tip my hat to Gipson and Johnson, they just came in and really went after it on the boards and took the game to another level in that aspect.”
Emporia State finally ended the run with a Kaleb Wright 3-pointer. Gipson scored a basket — his fifth of the half — and then Johnson finished a powerful dunk to put K-State ahead 38-22 at the break.
It was all Gipson and Johnson in the first half, as they were the only two players in double figures. And when the second half started, Johnson and Gipson started in place of Adrian Diaz and Jordan Henriquez.
Weber said it was a nice teaching point for his team.
“I told them at halftime, ‘here is your five starters, they got us going last time, but it is not set, it could change at halftime,’ and those two deserved it,” he said. “We have competition, I hope they realize that and that is what our staff is trying to make them realize. They need to be zipped up, hooked up, and ready to go. Otherwise, we have someone else that will take care of business for you.”
It was a strong game for the Wildcats’ post depth, which appeared to be limited to just Johnson and 6-foot-5 Nino Williams after Tuesday’s game against Washburn. After his limited minutes in exhibition No. 1, Gipson got in early against Emporia State, and did the kinds of things Weber said he is looking for out of his players.
Johnson said he and Gipson just wanted to put in solid performances for their team.
“I think me and Gipson just went in there and like we talked when we were getting ready to go in, we wanted to play hard and pick it up a little bit,” he said.
Johnson would play just six of his 18 minutes in the second half, as the Wildcats’ guards took over early. Will Spradling and Rodney McGruder hit back-to-back 3s and Angel Rodriguez hit a pair of buckets to push the lead out to 48-25.
It was easy goings for the Wildcats from there on out, as they went on run after run to finish out the ball game. Emporia State’s longest run of the second half was a 4-0 run in the final four minutes.
The Wildcats had four players in double figures scoring, with McGruder and Rodriguez finishing at 10 a piece.
It was on the boards that the Wildcats put up some startling numbers, equaling the Hornets point total with 51 rebounds to ESU’s 26. That number includes the Wildcats pulling down 23 offensive boards, led by Johnson’s six.
Vandiver, who played at Colorado from 1988-91, said the Wildcats look primed for a strong season.
“They have a lot of very good pieces to be successful this year,” he said. “If they come together and keep winning the battle on the boards like they do, the sky is the limit for them.”