The Kansas State women’s basketball team might be trading in its high-tops for some track shoes this year when the Wildcats open the season next month.
It’s not an ideal situation in the always-tough and very large Big 12 Conference, but it’s the reality the Wildcats are faced with this season after graduating both 6-foot-2 posts Jalana Childs and Branshea Brown, leaving K-State with nobody on the roster taller than 6-1.
K-State had hoped to go into the season with former Nebraska transfer — 6-1 junior forward Katya Leick — but she was lost in September for the season with an ACL injury. The Wildcats, who are coming off a 20-14 season and second straight NCAA tournament appearance, have also lost 5-10 Riley County freshman guard Kelly Thomson for the season with a torn ACL.
With Leick out of the mix inside, K-State will have to rely on a smaller, quicker lineup made up mostly of guards — led by seniors Brittany Chambers and Mariah White.
K-State’s “bigs” include four players who are 5-11 in junior Chantay Caron, sophomore Ashia Woods, sophomore Heidi Brown, junior college transfer Ashlynn Knoll and athletic 6-1 freshman Stacey Malone.
“Everything has changed for us,” K-State coach Deb Patterson said during the team’s media day Monday. “We are extremely young and sort of down in numbers. We will need to be more creative. We will have to spread the floor some and be more effective with our quickness and speed. We’ll have to find some creative ways on both ends of the floor to be effective.
“That will put more pressure on our defense… but if we can continue to work with that ethic and passion, the scheming will take care of itself.”
The Wildcats’ situation this year didn’t come as a shock for Patterson either. In fact, just a week after the season ended a year ago, the longtime K-State coach was already trying to figure out how to make the most of what she had coming back, coupled with a guard-heavy recruiting class.
“We knew we were losing Jalana and Brandy and that immediately changes the way you play around the floor,” she said. “We’ve always had at least one 6-2 or 6-3 player here, so this is different. But what will remain consistent with us is the work ethic, the ball distribution and the fundamental core of who we are and what we like to do. The type of player we have in the gym isn’t changing.
“How we hope to play, I think, will change a little bit though. You’ll see a difference because you won’t see Branshea Brown run down to the first hash, you won’t see Jalana playing off of Brandy inside. Things will look different, yes, and I hope it will translate into some positive production.”
Chambers, coming off her second straight All-Big 12 first-team selection, admitted she was little nervous knowing the post presence would be lacking, but said she’s confident the new-look Wildcats will find new ways to score.
“Anything we have as a challenge, they find a way to make it a positive in some way,” she said. “This year, we’re finding ways to work with what we have and make it a positive in how we play.”
One thing that won’t change is the reliance on Chambers to put the ball in the net. The Jordan, Minn., native has averaged double figures each of her three seasons in Manhattan and returns as the team’s leading scorer at 12.1 points per game.
“Brittany has had a tremendous career through her development and she started with a lot of responsibility on her shoulders at a young age and it has matured,” Patterson said. “She’s grown from a player who has had to have the ball in her hands a hundred percent of the time to be effective, to one who can play with or without it now. It is going to be important this year that she does have the ball in her hands a lot. I will look for her a lot to initiate on offense.
“She’s a great competitor, one of the best we have ever had here in our gym at Kansas State. I think it has gone understated just how great she is. She has just matured in every way as a leader and I have great confidence in her. She understands how we need her to play and she has no-back-down mentality.”
But Chambers, along with White, are just part of the equation K-State will rely on this season to translate into wins in the toughest RPI conference in America.
The Wildcats, who open the season Nov. 1 at home with an exhibition game against Fort Hays State, will also need big-time minutes from their newcomers this year — starting with Knoll, who was a JUCO All-American at Seward County Community College and freshman guard Brianna Craig from Lincoln, Neb.
“The first young lady that comes to mind is Brianna Craig, who is a tremendous athlete,” Patterson said. “I think she has the potential to be one of the finest guards that we have ever had in our program if she really grabs a hold and works extensively hard through the course of her career. She will play major minutes for us early this year.”
Knoll, who averaged 13 points and 6.6 rebounds in two seasons at Seward, will look to anchor the post this season.
“She’s one of our biggest players stretching at about six foot and has great feel for the game,” Patterson said. “As she learns the speed to which you have to defend and the physicality of this level, I think she will be a factor for us this season.”
Losing Thomson really hurts the Wildcats, as she was penciled in as an early starter for this team after staring locally at Riley County High School. The former Mercury Flint Hills Player of the Year and Falcons’ all-time leading 3-point shooter averaged more than 17 points per game in high school.
With Thomson out, more will be asked of fellow freshman Marissa Ellis, a 5-7 guard from Kansas City, Mo., who averaged 10 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists a game as a senior.
“She’s an athletic perimeter player who will play the one and two for us,” Patterson said. “There will be a lot of responsibility on her shoulders after losing Kelly Thomson.
“I think she will be up to the task. She was a young lady who suffered two ACL injuries in high school, so the physicality and the speed of the game will be a big transition for her.”
The Wildcats will open the regular season Nov. 9 at home against Idaho State.