Try to identify the best part of Cartier Diarra’s game Tuesday night.
Defense? You bet.
Kansas State’s junior guard was the antidote to the slew of problems that plagued the team in its 67-54, season-opening win over North Dakota State, commandeering a sputtering offense at times and reinvigorating a porous defense at others.
Diarra was just what K-State needed to overcome an early deficit and kick off the new season the right way.
“I do take responsibility for that,” Diarra said, referencing his newfound leadership role, especially on the scoring front. “We weren’t making the easy plays. We were taking a lot of 3s. At halftime, we were 1-for-12 (on 3-pointers). I would like to say if the six ain’t falling, we need to dig deep and get in the paint, which was working.”
Diarra logged 23 points — a career-best — to go with six rebounds and six assists. He shot an unsightly 8-for-21 from the field, but he was a plus-18 in his 32 minutes, and he lost just one turnover. He often was the best player on the court.
Diarra did it all Tuesday night, which started to become apparent toward the beginning of the second half, when K-State awoke from its first-half slumber.
First things first: Diarra hit an and-one to kick off the second-half scoring. A minute later, he knocked down two free throws, and after that, he scored on another jumper.
In sum, Diarra tallied 15 of his 23 points in the second half.
To Weber, part of it was an adjustment his club made in the second half: getting to the basket. By the time the first media timeout of the second half rolled around, the Wildcats were shooting 5-for-6.
With no 3-point attempts.
“We told them we had to turn the corner, put them in a bind,” Weber said. “We did a good job of that. It started with Cartier, but we had other guys who got in the paint and made some good plays.”
That was part of it. Then there were the highlights.
Diarra’s first came in the opening minutes, when he met North Dakota State point guard Vinnie Shahid at the rim and sent back his layup into the arms of Xavier Sneed, who took the ball up the floor. He handed it off to Diarra, who drove and made a tough finish over the arms of NDSU forward Rocky Kreuser.
K-State trimmed North Dakota State’s lead to 22-21.
Then, in the second half, Diarra slithered around defending Bison and lobbed an alley-oop to forward Makol Mawien, who finished with ease.
Let Diarra break down what he saw on the play, and why he jumped when he threw the lob.
“It was another play that was going to be more of a lob look,” Diarra said, “but the big stepped up that time, which he usually sagged down. I just kind of read it and threw it up. It was more like, ‘Mak better get this.’ That’s why I did an extra jump. But he got it, and it was a great play. Great read.”
Those are the types of plays K-State likely will need from Diarra this season, in large part because the Wildcats are still adjusting to life without Barry Brown, Dean Wade and Kamau Stokes, the legendary trio whose careers ended last season.
Now, the onus sometimes will be on Diarra to pick up where those guys left off: Open up the offense. Clamp down on defense. The top vocal leadership role belongs to Sneed, Weber said, but Diarra can do his talking with his play.
That’s especially important because K-State’s new roster includes so many newcomers. Freshman Montavious Murphy started at the power forward position, and transfer point guard David Sloan logged 19 minutes. Freshmen DaJuan Gordon and Antonio Gordon played 23 and eight minutes, respectively.
Diarra admitted after the game that he’s his own worst critic — “I settled for a lot of jumpers when I could have kept going downhill,” he said — but the Wildcats needed every drop of his production Tuesday night.
Even though he had to adjust one of his highlights, a step-back triple, to reflect college basketball’s new traveling rules.
Now, he has to land on both feet at the same time. His usual move, a step-back where he jumps off one foot, lands on one and then brings the other down, is a travel.
“I wish I was able to pull out that other step-back,” Diarra said with a smile, “because it does create a lot of space. That’s why they said that.”