Wildcat defense digs in for road test

By Nicolas Wahl

A little over a year ago, Kansas State forward Shane Southwell could be seen arms bowed out, flexing and screaming into a stunned WVU Coliseum crowd moments after the then-junior had blocked a last second shot by West Virginia’s Gary Browne to preserve a 65-64 Wildcat win.

“I was happy about that,” Southwell said. “That was a good experience, but that’s over. It’s a new year, new game, new teams. So, just got to throw that out the window.”

Southwell, now a senior, and his Wildcat teammates will hit the road against Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers (12-9, 4-4 Big 12) to close the first half of this season’s Big 12 slate on Saturday. The Wildcats (15-6, 5-3) have heard plenty of clamoring about what they are. And perhaps more importantly, what they’re not.

They aren’t the biggest.

“Yeah, we’re a lot smaller than most teams,” junior forward Nino Williams said. “But we just harp on principles, position. Because if we’re in position, we always say ‘the help can’t get beat.’”

They aren’t the most dynamic.

“Just be solid and make them score through us,” senior guard Will Spradling said of his team’s defensive identity. “We’re not a team that’s going to turn people over a lot, but we can hold you to a low field-goal percentage.”

It’s a help-based team effort that allowed the Wildcats to reel off a 14-1 record from Nov. 24 through their 78-56 win over the Mountaineers Jan. 18 in Bramlage Coliseum. It was that span that saw K-State opponents shoot a paltry 37 percent from the field, and the Wildcats hold nine foes to their lowest scoring output of the season.

That includes West Virginia, who K-State clamped down on early and held to just 6-of-20 shooting in the first half, and 32 percent for the game.

“When you’re smaller you have to push first, hit first,” Southwell said. “Find the biggest guy and hit him first. That’s what you’re supposed to do at a bar fight.”

But in the Wildcats’ last two road trips, close losses at Texas and Iowa State, it was K-State’s opponents who threw the first punch. Both the Longhorns and Cyclones shot better than 45 percent in first half against the Wildcats, and both went into the locker room with halftime leads that K-State couldn’t overcome.

“I think a lot of it was just effort, not getting back in transition,” Williams said. “Coach’s been harping on being consistent. If you close out, or you help, be consistent, get back on defense, and just play hard.”

K-State head coach Bruce Weber challenged his team when they returned home to face Texas Tech, and his Wildcats responded. They held the Red Raiders to 29 percent on 7-of-24 shooting in the first half to jump out to a 14-point lead before holding Tech back long enough to secure the 66-58 win.

“We call this gut-check week after coming off of two big losses,” Weber said after the win over Texas Tech.

That was at home though. Thursday, Weber had the words intensity and energy written on the blackboard at practice. “It takes 20 percent more on the road,” it said, and K-State knows it will have to ratchet up the intensity as they head to Morgantown.

“We do a great job feeding off the crowd on defense, but we need to figure out a way to bring that same energy on the road,” Spradling said. “It’s probably more important to bring energy early on the road, and we have to play more as a team.”

Though West Virginia’s numbers are down, they’re eighth in the Big 12 in rebounding margin at minus-2 per game, they still crash the offensive glass (.34 percent) and the Wildcats are preparing for the Mountaineers typical brand of physicality.

“We focus on that anyway, but especially with them,” Southwell said. “They’re a bigger team and Coach Huggins’ teams always crash the boards. We have to box out, rebound. We have to gang rebound, everybody.”

WVU has also proven to be deadly from beyond the arc, ranking tops in the Big 12, shooting 38.5 percent from 3-point range. K-State has the best 3-point field goal percentage defense in the conference, giving up just 28 percent. The last time K-State faced a hot shooting team on the road Iowa State torched them for 9 of 18 from deep.

Southwell knows the Wildcats’ perimeter players will have to be mindful of Mountaineer gunners Eron Harris and Juwan Staten, who both score over 17 points per game and are shooting 43 and 33 percent on 3-pointers respectively, while helping out inside and on the defensive glass. Forward Remi Dibo also stretches a defense and hits 40 percent on threes.

“Even when we’re helping, we have to stay focused and get out there and contest every shot,” he said. “Not just 3-pointers, but mid-range too.”

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