The NCAA-tournament bubble isn’t something Kansas State is living life on, but a loss Saturday certainly would have done some damage to the Wildcats’ seeding for the Big Dance.
So while Saturday’s game against Oklahoma State had no bearing on K-State’s seeding for the Big 12 tournament, it was crucial for the Wildcats to avoid what would have likely been classified as a “bad loss.” No worries there, as K-State throttled the Cowboys 77-58 in Bramlage Coliseum.
Now the real fun begins, as K-State, the No. 5 seed, will play fourth-seeded Baylor on Thursday at 11:30 a.m. in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament in Kansas City, Mo. Over the course of the next two tournaments, it becomes a matter of win and move on, lose and go home.
“You’re not promised another day so we’re playing for our lives right now,” Victor Ojeleye said. “That’s the only thing that really matters for this whole team, this whole family — (we’ve) just got to play basketball and maximize each day.”
With the Big 12 tournament starting this Wednesday, March Madness is here. And although this isn’t the time to relax and take the foot off the gas, the Wildcats do have 21 wins and know they can likely breathe a little easier on Selection Sunday, which is just one week away.
“The pressure of winning the next game (now), it’s not there because fate is there,” K-State coach Frank Martin said. “You win you keep playing, you don’t win, you’re done. So there’s not that nonsense that you have to win certain games so you can get to postseason play. We’re in it now. I think we’ve handled the regular season well enough. Now we get opportunities to go achieve our goals and we’ve prepared the best we can.”
Those goals had to wait until after Saturday. Business came first, and the Wildcats (21-9, 10-8) took care of it. Leading 40-33 at the half, the Wildcats put their foot on Oklahoma State’s jugular in the opening minutes of the final period. It all happened seemingly in the blink of an eye.
After Keiton Page hit a 3 to pull the Cowboys to within four, the Wildcats executed a 14-0 run to build a 54-36 lead. Jamar Samuels and Rodney McGruder scored on layups, then McGruder hit back-to-back 3s and just like that it was 50-36 with 16:22 remaining. Samuels then hit a jumper from the baseline, Jordan Henriquez scored on a put-back layup and the rout was on.
Travis Ford, the Oklahoma State head coach, said he felt the game changed at halftime when his players discovered that Philip Jurick, who was injured three minutes into the contest, had suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon.
“Our guys felt decent going into halftime,” Ford said. “Once our guys came in, saw Jurick and the situation he was in, it took a lot out of our players and some of our guys were down. We did not come out the way we needed to and Kansas State made a really good push.”
While Jurick’s injury had an impact on an already depleted Cowboys’ roster, the Oklahoma State center wouldn’t have been the guy trying to stop K-State’s Rodney McGruder, who the Cowboys had no answer for. McGruder scored 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting, including 4-of-6 from 3. And while the junior’s offense played a big part, his defense on Page, the Cowboys’ leading scorer and the school’s all-time leader in 3-point makes, was of equal importance.
Page, who was guarded by Will Spradling early on, buried his first three 3s of the game and it looked like this could be the type of game the 5-8 guard might just go off. But McGruder kept Page from connecting on a shot from the field over the final 11:36 of the first half. Page finished the game with 22 points on 7-of-13 shooting, but turned the ball over eight times.
“(McGruder) is awesome,” Martin said. “His freshman year he couldn’t defend me and now we can put him on the opponent’s best player. Whenever we get the ball, he runs harder than anybody down the court on offense and he never gets beat on defense going back. He’s our second-leading rebounder, he guards the best player on the other team and yet we run half the stuff we run to create cracks for him to make a play. That’s how good he’s been for our basketball team. He’s a phenomenal kid to coach.”
Henriquez and Samuels joined McGruder in double figures while helping K-State control the paint. Henriquez scored 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds, while Samuels added 17 points and 12 boards.
The Wildcats turned the Cowboys (14-17, 7-11) over 19 times, outscoring them 24-9 on points off turnovers.
K-State was efficient offensively, connecting on nearly 52 percent of its field goal attempts as it found holes in the middle of Oklahoma State’s zone defense. Overall, the Wildcats recorded 21 assists to just 11 turnovers.
“We came out in the second half and we were better on defense,” Martin said. “Then obviously when you make shots it helps. We made shots because we moved the ball, we cut, we didn’t stand around. We had 21 assists. That means guys, especially in the second half, were moving that ball.”
With the regular-season over — the 18-game grind of the Big 12’s double-round robin format finished — the Wildcats can now set their sights on their two biggest goals.
“We have two objectives: Let’s go win the Big 12, go to the NCAA tournament, get a good seed, try to make a run,” Martin said. “Those are the two objectives going into every year. Go win the Big 12. That opportunity comes next week. So that’s one thing we have to go tackle.
“Now it’s a matter of taking a chance to go do something special.”