It was just a year ago that the odds seemed stacked against Kansas State in its Big 12 opener.
The Wildcats were facing a Top 25-ranked Oklahoma State team led by one of the country’s top freshman. And although the Wildcats had just defeated No. 8 Florida a handful of games earlier, there was still so much uncertainty about the team under first-year coach Bruce Weber.
Of course, the Wildcats went on to win 73-67 in Manhattan, setting the table for a run that ended with a Big 12 championship.
K-State (10-3) is hoping to duplicate that start when the Cowboys visit Manhattan on Saturday for the first time since that game last year, again opening the Big 12 schedule in Bramlage Coliseum.
The game is scheduled for a 3 p.m. tip on ESPNU.
Senior guard Will Spradling said the setups for the games seem somewhat similar.
“We came in under the radar last year (too),” he said. “After that first game we really showed everybody that we were in the Big 12 to make a run for the money and we did a good job of just staying consistent throughout the season.”
The Cowboys are once again led by Marcus Smart, who turned down a shot at being a lottery pick in the NBA Draft to chase a championship with Oklahoma State (12-1). But others returned, too. Both Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown turned down chances to play in the NBA for one last turn with the Cowboys, and all three players are averaging more than 13 points per game.
Smart, the returning Big 12 Player of the Year, looks well on his way to competing for the honor again, along with national awards.
Spradling said they will look to exploit Smart’s weaknesses to slow down his game.
“I think we’re going to put length on him because he struggles with length,” he said. “You’ll probably see Wes (Iwundu) and Omari (Lawrence) on him a little bit more. It will be a lot of guys on him because we switch a lot and everybody can guard.”
Last year the Cowboys exploited the Wildcats’ weaknesses early. Although K-State was a solid defneisve team last year as well, the Cowboys forced early turnovers and rushed shots and turned in transition.
K-State coach Bruce Weber said they absolutely have to avoid that to pick up a win on Saturday.
“They get steals, shot blocks, they make you go fast, then they get you in transition,” he said. “Last year, here, in the first half it was a dunk contest. Then we played a little stronger and took care of the ball. We’ve got to make them run offense. They’re so athletic. Smart is a one, he’s a four, Markel is a one-two-three, and Nash is so versatile, too.”
The Cowboys will be playing their first game without forward Michael Cobbins, the team’s leading shot blocker who went down with an injury on Dec. 30 against Robert Morris. Cobbins is expected to miss the remainder of the season.
Weber said it will change some things about Oklahoma State’s rotation, which was already limited to just a few players. Another player who might be missing for the Cowboys is guard Stevie Clark, who was arrested earlier this week and charged with possession of marijuana.
“They don’t have the depth,” Weber said. “(Cobbins) was their shot blocker. The other guy (Kamari Murphy) is good who is going to come in for him, but who comes in after that? Do they play small ball? If that happens, we’ve got to make sure we take care of the ball.”
The Wildcats are in a strange streak of scoring, finishing with exactly 72 points in their last four games. They’ve also held their last eight opponents to their lowest scoring performance of the season, and have done so to 11 of the 12 teams they’ve faced this year too.
“We’ve held a lot of people down,” Weber said. “We’re going to see if — this is one of the top offensive teams in the country — we can do that against them. The way we’ve progressed since Mississippi — a little bit of a letup against South Dakota — we’ve been pretty effective. Three of those wins, it’s like (playing) league opponents. We’ve been able to handle them and beat the other teams solidly.”
The Wildcats won’t have Rodney McGruder to score 25 points and lead them over Oklahoma State on Saturday, but junior Nino Williams thinks the defense can be enough to frustrate the Cowboys and lead to balanced scoring.
Williams said the Wildcats are ready to defend the Big 12 title.
“I think we have something to defend,” he said. “Last couple of games we proved we could guard anyone. Gonzaga is one of the best offensive teams in the country and Tulane, we held them to 10 points (in the first half). We’re just coming in with a defensive mindset.
“Last year in the Big 12, to start, we weren’t offensively good. We leaned on our defense early, and I think that’s what we’re going to do this year.”