Through Kansas State's first nine games of the 2020-21 season, the Wildcats are in largely the same spot as they were to last year.
Though there are differences in schedule — last year's team had the benefit of a more spread out, 11-game non-conference slate — both teams sit or sat at 5-4 through their first nine games. However, the way in which both teams have arrived at this point could not be more different.
And unfortunately for this year's Kansas State team, there are some troubling trends that have also appeared in its opening run that could create a very different path from the team that finished tied for fourth in the Big 12 last year.
The biggest change is obviously the absence of former All-Big 12 forward Peyton Williams. In her absence, Kansas State's offensive strategy has been flipped on its head.
Last year, Kansas State's offense revolved around its interior game with Williams and center Ayoka Lee doing most of the damage. Kansas State's forwards and centers scored almost 60% of the team's points.
This season, the Wildcats' bigs are contributing just over 40% of the team's points. When Lee and her 16.9 points per game are taken away from that equation, that number drops to 15%.
Some of that was planned for. Prior to the season, K-State head coach Jeff Mittie said he already knew there wasn't a straight forward replacement for Williams on the team's roster.
"From a statistical (standpoint), we don't have a player who's going to put up 16 (points) and 11 (rebounds per game) to replace her," Mittie said. Oct. 22. "We do have a group of players that can elevate their games."
To replace Williams, K-State has flipped from the standard player sets it used last year to taking the floor with four guards at a time. The most popular rotation for Mittie has been that of guards Sydney Goodson, Emilee Ebert, Rachel Ranke and Chrissy Carr spaced along the perimeter with Lee patrolling the paint.
Mittie was hopeful the change would come with an increase in 3-point shooting prowess. So far, it has not.
Kansas State is shooting just under 28% from 3-point range in the early going this season. That is marginally better than where the Wildcats finished last season, at 25.6%.
As a result of not having a consistent post presence to pair with Lee or an uptick in its deep shooting, Kansas State is averaging almost 10 fewer points per game than it did last season.
When adjusting the schedule to account for the scheduling differences — this year's K-State team has already played two conference games, where defenses can be expected to stiffen — the numbers get worse, not better. In Kansas State's first seven non-conference games and two conference games last year, which matches where this season's K-State team is, the Wildcats averaged nearly 13.5 points more per game than this year's team is.
The lack of offense is a major concern for the Wildcats. Kansas State (59.4 points per game) ranks last in the Big 12 in team offense by nine points. The Wildcats and ninth-place TCU are the only teams averaging below 70 points per game in the conference.
However, there is a reason the Wildcats still have a winning record. The team's defense has been one of the best in the Big 12, allowing just 59 points per game. Last year's Kansas State team went through its first seven non-conference games and two conference games allowing just under 65 points per game.
The mark may be deceiving. By the end of Big 12 play last year, Kansas State was allowing close to 70 points per game. In K-State's two Big 12 games so far, the Wildcats have allowed their most and third-most points in a game this season.
Should the trends continue, Kansas State's 0-2 Big 12 start will not be an aberration.
There is still time for K-State to right its course. The Wildcats are playing with a young team — all but one of the players on the squad are underclassmen. With many receiving their first major playing time, the relative inexperience will soon wear off.
"We don't have time to sit here and be sad about the losses," guard Rachel Ranke said following the team's 62-52 loss to Texas on Dec. 21. "We have another game coming. We just have to lock back in, refocus, and know what we have to do."