Don't let Kansas State's 10-7 record fool you. The Wildcats have started to turn their season around against Big 12 competition and stand just a half game back of first place in the conference behind Kansas. To try to understand the sudden improvement, we got in touch with Eric Rubottom of Bring On The Cats. Head on over this way to see my answers to their questions.
PC: Things have started to turn around in conference play for the Wildcats, but the non-conference brought some pretty troubling loses, particularly a home loss against Texas Southern. I’m honestly pretty surprised by Kansas State’s struggles. What’s happening in Manhattan? Is this team as bad as their resume? Are you worried about possibly missing the Tournament?
ER: Let's take this in chunks...
We're not quite sure what's happening in Manhattan, outside of the clear chemistry issues, and our skepticism that Bruce Weber and his staff can truly corral those problems. You can't expect a bunch of young men 18-22 to maintain an even keel and supreme focus, but the mentality of each player, and the team as a whole, has been all over the map this season. The adage is that you don't know what you had until it's lost, and it's pretty clear in my mind that the toughness that Will Spradling, Shane Southwell, and Omari Lawrence brought to the table from their Frank Martin days is long gone, and Spradling (being the son of a coach) had an on-court leadership that has been vacant for the most part this year.
It's really difficult to tell if K-State is as bad as its resume. To directly answer the question, I would say yes, but we shouldn't be. I can't categorize the Wildcats this year as "good" or "bad"...just inconsistent. Inconsistent on effort, inconsistent on execution, inconsistent on understanding. That's why it's so frustrating for all of us. Talent-wise, we have a squad that for the most part really put it to Purdue on a neutral floor, took care of Texas A&M without much difficulty, kept up with Arizona (who was #2 at the time), and went in to Norman and took down Oklahoma. These games weren't beyond the expectations of this team coming into the season. I wouldn't even say we played that well against A&M and OU, and we still came away with victories. The talent and capability are there. On the other hand, we also have a team that puts up 12 points in the first half at home against Georgia in a loss, and can't close out sub-200 teams with any vigor. The Texas Southern game, at the end of the day, was lost well before the stars aligned and we coughed up a five point lead with three seconds on the clock.
I wrote at the beginning of Big 12 play that our only solid way into the tournament at that point was a Big 12 championship - either regular season or tournament. The reality is that if we can some how finish in the top 3 of the regular season, that might be enough to get in as a 11- or 12-seed, as that non-conference slate will be a anchor around our neck. No one is confident (and reasonably so) that a finish of that sort is going to happen.
PC: For a kid I expected to be the second coming of Jacob Pullen, it’s been pretty up-and-down for Marcus Foster. He has clashed with head coach Bruce Weber and was benched for a good portion of the Oklahoma State game. He’s started to come around in the last couple of games, so maybe this is all straightened out, but what’s the situation with him? Are the problems behind him now, or is there more rocky road ahead for Foster?
ER: As a scorer, I wouldn't argue with you. He has the potential to be one of the best bulk scorers K-State has ever seen, in my mind. The problem is that he needs to develop mentally. But Jake was nails mentally. He had a competitive fire that wasn't about Jake doing well - it was about the other team losing. He rarely sulked if he was having an off-night, as long as K-State was up on the scoreboard. For Foster, the stretch you mention - and we're all well aware of - showed us just how soft he is between the ears. He didn't seem like someone that's first priority is to go out and help get K-State to a win - his first priority was to go out and get Foster buckets. Someone apparently got through to him, though, and he's been playing much better team ball as of late. Is it all straightened out? Who knows. I'd like to see a bit more empirical data before we come to that conclusion.
PC: KenPom’s cumulative stats say that the Kansas State offense is worse than their defense, but looking at some of the breakdown stats, I’m not sure that’s the case. Opponents are shooting 50% overall from 2pt range, per KenPom, and 62.8% at the rim, where they are taking nearly 36% of their shots, per Hoop-Math. Having watched the games, you can tell me this: am I right to think KState has a rim-protection problem? Is it simply the lack of a shot blocker, or has the perimeter defense been unable to contain opposing wings?
ER: I'll preface this by saying that our defense has improved dramatically in conference play. However, K-State's collective defense across the season has been one of two significant weak spots for this year's team (the other being turnovers), and a point of much consternation among anyone watching at more than a cursory level. The rim protection problem is actually a byproduct of the primary issue - our on-ball defense has been terrible. We haven't been able to keep dribble penetration out of the paint well at all, and help rotations come late, and help-the-helper rotations have been non-existent. We don't have a great shot blocker in the middle, and we typically cough up a decent number of offensive rebounds for easy putbacks, and live-ball turnovers for layups. It all adds up.
PC: I’ve been a little gloom-and-doom with you so far, so let’s move towards something more positive. What the heck happened in Normanon Saturday!?
ER: The quippy response is we finally played how we're capable of playing. Hield still got his (31 points), but we were able to keep anyone else from going off. We had great contributions by most everyone (especially Stephen Hurt), and of course, the late game heroics of Foster. A huge key for us is we played from in front most of the game. Every time they made a run, we were able to settle the team down by methodically working to find a good shot and make it. Oklahoma is a very good team, but if they can be forced into tough shots, and you can focus on ball security and not let them turn you over at high levels, you've got a shot.
PC: Now for the hardest part. What’s your prediction for the game Saturday? Does Foster light up the Bears get another win early in conference play, or does Baylor’s defense hold steady, turn the Wildcats over, and get points in transition? What Kansas State player do you think could be key to this game besides Foster?
ER: Man, it's really hard to tell. As long as we can stay around or better than our turnover average (14+ per game), I honestly think it's going to come down to rebounding. If we rebound well, I think we've got a shot. If we can't keep the Bears off the glass, it could be a long day for K-State. I think Wesley Iwundu could have a big day, and I'm really interested if big man Stephen Hurt can capitalize on his improvement over the last two games. Either situation would be good for us. Foster will do what he does (hopefully), and Thomas Gipson the same. Ultimately, I think K-State can't come up with the goods like they did in Norman, and Baylor probably pulls out a 76-68 win.
Full disclosure: I totally botched that prediction question at first, saying it was a road game for the Wildcats. I double-checked with Eric if that would change his prediction, and he said he'd stick with his original pick. That's the state of KState fans right now; but hey, Baylor fans can definitely sympathize with that level of frustration. After all, right now we're hoping to break the Odd Year Curse.
Thanks again to Eric for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. Here's to a great game on Saturday afternoon. *clinks Dr Pepper bottles*