Another year, another pick to finish fifth in the Big 12 Conference.
As the Kansas State men’s basketball team looks to defend its first league title since 1977, it’s dealing with being selected in the middle of the pack once again, notably being picked fifth for the second straight season.
As K-State junior Thomas Gipson explained it, the team had barely received their Big 12 rings and critics were already trying to figure out how low the Wildcats would finish.
Of course, it can be easy to see why expectations could be either high or low. On the lower end, the Wildcats must replace three seniors, including their leading scorer in Rodney McGruder, and point guard Angel Rodriguez, who transferred to Miami in April.
But then again, the Wildcats return a roster of players who started to show promise in the second half of last season, and played key roles in leading the team to the regular season league title.
Senior Shane Southwell became a player the Wildcats could rely on in key moments last season and became a prominent scorer for the first time in his career. Nino Williams had flashes, and Thomas Gipson came off the bench to make big contributions. Add a couple freshmen that the team is speaking highly of, and the recipe for success appears to still be there.
K-State coach Bruce Weber said teams put the pressure of those expectations on themselves.
“I’m not sure what fans expected last year,” Weber said. “I think we went by any expectations that were out there and had great success and got into the Top 10 at part of the year and won the Big 12. We are a new team — it should be a fun team.
“All we are worried about is our (opening) game against Northern Colorado, that is all I am focused on and then getting better. If that happens we will be competitive by the time we get into the second half of the season.”
The Wildcats will also return senior Will Spradling, who has contributed all three years of his K-State career. But Spradling will take on the role of point guard — one he has only seen limited time at during his time with the Wildcats.
Weber said Spradling is a player that fans seem to take for granted, even though he contributes in so many ways.
“He does so much for you as a player,” he said. “You can play him at the point, you can play him at the two. He has great awareness on defense. He just knows what you are doing ahead of time. A lot like McGruder, he leads by example and he’s not very outspoken.”
With the loss of three seniors from last year’s squad also comes the loss of the Wildcats’ primary source of leadership. That leaves Southwell, Spradling and Omari Lawrence, three of the team’s four seniors, to pick up slack. But Gipson has also taken it upon himself to be one of the group’s more vocal leaders.
Sophomore forward DJ Johnson said they have all stepped up in their new roles.
“They help motivate each other in practice a little more and are trying to get everyone involved as far as motivating the team,” Johnson said. “They are making sure that everyone is on the hustle from drill to drill and anything that they can do to better the team at practice.”
The Wildcats will be a predominantly undersized team this season, with 6-foot-11 Jordan Henriquez departed via graduation. Left behind are just Gipson and Johnson as true posts, with K-State destined to go smaller at the forward position.
Gipson said success at the forward position will come down to being able to defend.
“We are basically undersized at our position,” he said. “We will have more power than we did last year, we just have to react better on defense. When Jordan was here last year, people could make mistakes because he would be there to block shots, but now we have to be more effective on the defensive end and not let mishaps happen.”
Added into the mix will be a freshman class headlined by Marcus Foster, who by all accounts, will take McGruder’s spot in the lineup. Additionally, the Wildcats will have two small forwards in Wesley Iwundu and Jack Karapetyan and two point guards in Nigel Johnson and Jevon Thomas, who won’t be eligible until Dec. 21.
If Foster is to take McGruder’s spot, his teammates like what they’ve seen in practice. Lawrence said Foster and Spradling function well together.
“Marcus is a great scorer and Will likes to distribute the ball,” he said. “Marcus pressures the ball and plays great defense, and they will work well with each other.”
The Wildcats will debut their squad on Oct. 25, at ‘Manhattan Madness,’ in Bramlage Coliseum. After that, they have an exhibition game against Pittsburg State on Nov. 1, and the team opens with Northern Colorado on Nov. 8.
Before they get to that point, Lawrence said they still have some work to do.
“We’re still in the learning stage right now,” he said. “The coaches are working with us right now to get through all of these drills. We have seven new guys, so everyone is just slowly, but surely learning the system.”
As far as the expectations go, at least from the players’ standpoints, it remains the same as always.
For the defending Big 12 champs, Southwell said the goal is to win another Big 12 title.
“Here in this building, the expectations are still the same,” he said. “Last year, outside of this locker room, no one had us winning the Big 12. That is just an expectation here.
“We have to improve every day and take it one day at a time. Just have to be 1-0, that’s the motto for this year.”