Kansas State guard Mike McGuirl jumped and contested the shot. Job done. Forced a miss.
His teammate, freshman Antonio Gordon, snared the rebound. Handed it off to point guard David Sloan, who took off in transition, scanning the floor on a crowded fast break against Arkansas Pine Bluff.
He spotted forward Makol Mawien angling toward the basket, so he passed it that way. Mawien grabbed the pass, took two steps and went up. Missed the shot, but he was fouled, and he made both free throws.
That was part of how K-State pulled away late and secured a 62-51 win over Arkansas Pine Bluff Tuesday night at Bramlage Coliseum, the latest chapter in a pattern that has seen the Wildcats struggle against overmatched opponents early and create separation late.
It represented something else, though.
It provided a window into how the Wildcats finally broke the Golden Lions’ zone defense.
“It wasn’t real smooth,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said of his team’s zone offense. “It’s actually a zone that we kind of run, so you hope we have an idea of how to attack it. We didn’t get enough flashing in the middle. I thought we took some quick shots. They weren’t bad shots, but they were quick, and we didn’t make the defense work enough.”
K-State shot 38% from the field, including an 8-for-23 mark on 3-pointers, and didn’t deliver a particularly efficient game against the 2-3 zone defense Pine Bluff played. The Wildcats scored just 27 points at halftime — the first time this season they haven’t trailed at the intermission, in fact — and their half-court offense left some to be desired.
Some of that carried over to the second half, but the theme of both halves was that K-State played best against the zone when it didn’t have to.
That is to say: When the Wildcats got out into transition and didn’t give the Golden Lions time to set their defense.
K-State finished with 15 fast-break points, and if not for the 14-for-25 night it had at the free throw line, that number could have ended much higher.
“Just getting ahead before they set up,” said K-State swingman Xavier Sneed, who supplied a team-best 21 points in the win. “Kicking the ball ahead, getting fast, easy points before they can set up. Anytime we can get out in transition, it helps us out a lot, getting easy buckets as well.”
That K-State struggled against a zone defense should come as no surprise, not if you’ve followed Bruce Weber’s teams the last several years. The Wildcats, for some reason, have historically languished against zones.
In the past several years, they were able to rely on the services of Barry Brown, Kamau Stokes and Dean Wade to take their defenders off the dribble and score in pinches. That prevented the Wildcats from having an even harder time against the slew of zone looks they saw all season.
Not anymore, though. All three have moved on. The Wildcats no longer have that luxury.
Now, K-State has to rely on a better zone offense.
On Tuesday night, that surfaced in spurts. When the Wildcats had the ball hopping, Sneed knocked down open mid-range shots and different forwards got looks underneath. They didn’t always finish around the basket — Weber lamented the way Makol Mawien and Levi Stockard struggled in that department — but the fact that the shots were there at all represents a step forward for this offense.
The game became ugly when the Wildcats didn’t get those shots. They ran their offense, sure, but it didn’t always result in open looks. When that happened, they hoisted tough shots. Forced up contested layups when better options were available.
You saw that in the numbers. The Wildcats lost 16 turnovers, including 10 in the first half.
“I think we did pretty well,” Sneed said. “Moved the ball around. Found our spots. We did turn the ball over a little bit too much, but I think we found the right guys at the right time and made some good plays.”
The challenge for the Wildcats will be to replicate that. On Monday, the Wildcats will take on Pitt in Fort Myers, Florida, part of the Fort Myers Tipoff.
Another chance to improve on a zone offense that has already begun to look better.
“That’s all part of learning,” Weber said. “Now, you watch film tomorrow, you have a better idea. If we don’t shoot it well, people are going to sit back on us. I still think we’ll be a good shooting team. It’s just a matter of time. You know, 8-for-23 — probably two or three of those, you don’t even take, and maybe your percentage is a little better.”