MANHATTAN — After two lopsided exhibition wins, Kansas State has proven what everyone already knew. The Wildcats are much better than the state’s Division II basketball teams.
Even with the Wildcats adjusting to new coach Bruce Weber, they showed improvement during an 81-51 victory over Emporia State on Sunday at Bramlage Coliseum. Other than a few shaky minutes early, they looked good on both ends just like they did against Washburn.
But will that success translate to the regular season, which begins Friday against North Dakota? That’s the main question now facing K-State.
Weber is optimistic, but he also sees room for improvement.
“Free throws, obviously,” Weber said. “Turnovers were a little better. I would still like to cut them down a little bit more. I think we have to deal with ball screens. North Dakota might run six ball screens on a possession. Just dealing with that and talking and making sure we get to the shooters will be very important.”
So will starting fast once the games matter. K-State needs to play well immediately if it wants to qualify for the final rounds of the NIT Season Tip-Off and play two games at Madison Square Garden.
The Wildcats will be favored in their first few games, so victories are expected. But they will pose greater challenges than the exhibition season.
The biggest challenge on Sunday might have been motivation. A small crowd showed up, and intensity was hard to come by. Weber noticed low energy from his team before tipoff in the locker room and urged his players to bring their own energy.
It wasn’t easy, evidenced by Emporia State taking a 19-18 lead with 4:46 remaining in the first half.
But K-State eventually pulled away behind the play of their most energetic player. Freshman forward DJ Johnson came off the bench to score 17 points and grab nine rebounds in 18 minutes of action.
“He comes every day and plays … he’s just happy,” Weber said. “He was at the football game last night in the fourth quarter doing the Wabash and having fun. He came back today and played with the same energy. That’s what you like out of guys.”
When Johnson came to K-State over the summer, Weber thought he was a candidate for a redshirt, but those thoughts have completely left his mind. Johnson is now competing for a starting spot inside along with Jordan Henriquez, Adrian Diaz and Thomas Gipson, who scored 12 points and grabbed five rebounds
“I’m a little surprised, but going against the guys every day definitely helps,” Johnson said. “We go at it pretty hard in practice.”
K-State showed its toughness inside by out-rebounding Emporia State 51-26. The Wildcats only made 58 percent of their free throws and committed 11 turnovers, but Weber thinks his team is in good shape.
Rodney McGruder and Angel Rodriguez both scored 10 points and played well. They benefited from strong defensive play that created fast-break layups. Twelve different players scored, overall.
That should give Weber options when he picks a starting lineup for the season-opener.
“We have competition,” Weber said. “I hope they realize that. You’ve got to be zipped up and hooked up and ready to go every time otherwise you’ve got somebody else who will take care of business for you.”