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Kinder: Young Cats throw wrench into Big 12 race

By Joshua Kinder

The two-horse race we thought would be the Big 12 this season might have just added a third entry to the field.

It’s early still, but Kansas State did its part Saturday to shake things up by edging sixth-ranked Oklahoma State and defending Big 12 Player of the Year Marcus Smart, 74-71, at Bramlage Coliseum.

Winners of nine straight, the Wildcats sent a message to the rest of the Big 12 that they’re still co-owners of last season’s conference championship, setting up a big game with Kansas next weekend in Lawrence.

It wasn’t a pretty win, but K-State showed the kind of heart and grit Saturday that was missing from its season-opening loss at home to Northern Colorado. A team that started the season 2-3 now looks like a team that could be in play for another Big 12 run following its upset win over Gonzaga two weeks ago and its resume-building victory over George Washington this past week.

K-State (11-3) is rolling right along and doing so with what might be the most athletic — albeit raw — talent it’s had in years. The combination of freshmen Marcus Foster, Wesley Iwundu and Jevon Thomas with veterans Thomas Gipson and Shane Southwell looks pretty good. The Wildcats easily had the better Marcus on Saturday — finishing with a team-high 17 points and eight rebounds.

There’s no fear in these Wildcats, at least not yet. That could, of course, change next Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse, a place where many great teams often go and die.

Is K-State reckless at times? Yes, very much so. That’s the youth. But in a league that was quick to anoint Kansas and Oklahoma State as the clear frontrunners, having a group of underappreciated guys unafraid of the names on the back of certain jerseys can be a very good thing — especially in March.

The Wildcats didn’t back down Saturday — willing to go toe-to-toe against the Cowboys’ proven stars in Smart, Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown. And there’s no reason to think K-State, especially while riding its current hot streak, will take a backseat to the gaggle of Jayhawks’ stars next week.

A fearless and improving team with confidence is even more potent and that’s what K-State is right now. What does K-State have to lose? Not much, actually. Nobody gave the Wildcats a fighting chance — even this week K-State wasn’t considered an NCAA tournament team by the so-called “experts.”

I wrote the Wildcats off after it’s bad start too, as many did before the season even began. The Wildcats went into the year with no real star power after losing Rodney McGruder and Angel Rodriguez. Everyone said head coach Bruce Weber just won with Frank Martin’s players last season, anyway.

Now that Foster and Company are looking like elite talents, that argument can be thrown out the window. If anything, this year’s version of the Wildcats looks more like a team, because there is no proven star. They share the ball, fight for loose balls, take risky shots and make them, run the floor with the kind of aggressiveness and athleticism K-State teams have lacked in recent years.

Nobody is standing around waiting for one guy to win the game.

I in no way am ready to predict a victory for the Wildcats next week — they still have to win at TCU on Tuesday. But an athletic, fearless team, unafraid of making mistakes and one that doesn’t back down to teams like Gonzaga and Oklahoma State might just have a shot at making the Sunflower Showdown more interesting than we all thought two months ago.

The loss to Northern Colorado was laughable, much like the K-State football team’s loss to North Dakota State, and look how those Wildcats ended the season.

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