Kansas State basketball players hoped for the best, but they knew they were vulnerable heading into the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off on Friday at Madison Square Garden.
The Wildcats have only been working with new coach Bruce Weber since he was hired to replace Frank Martin in late March and they were going up against No. 4 Michigan, a team that is coming off a Big 10 championship.
That combination resulted in K-State’s first loss, and it wasn’t even close. Michigan won 71-57.
“We had only played five games,” junior guard Will Spradling said. “We don’t have much experience with (the new coaching staff) and we hadn’t played a great team yet. We had been getting quick shots, easy shots. This team is going to make you work to score and get good looks. We didn’t really know how to get open or how to work late in the shot clock out of our offense.”
Instead of legitimizing a five-game winning streak on a big stage, the Wildcats showed their flaws.
Weber’s motion offense seemed to have the most holes. It didn’t produce many easy passes, shots or points against Michigan’s tough defense. The Wildcats found success in the open court, but struggled in the half court, making 36.7 percent of their shots and trailing from start to finish.
K-State’s current offense is much different than under the previous coaching staff. Weber asks his players to continually pass, move and screen. They ran the offense well against inferior competition, averaging 78.2 points, but weren’t as crisp against the Wolverines.
“We are not at that point right now,” Weber said. “One time the guy will make the right cut and the passer won’t see it. The next time the screener will make the right screen and the cutter won’t see it. We’ve got to connect.”
The biggest miscommunications came between K-State’s guards and big men. Angel Rodriguez, who made the all-tournament team after scoring 10 points, and Spradling were active throughout, but Jordan Henriquez was quiet for the second straight game. He scored eight points and grabbed three rebounds two days after going scoreless against Delaware.
“He’s got to come to play and he’s got to do it in practice,” Weber said. “Our big guys, we’ve got enough people that if you aren’t ready to play we’ve got to play somebody else. He’s got to have some good practices here. Hopefully that will help him get a little more involved.”
Henriquez only played 16 minutes, but his replacements didn’t play much better. Thomas Gipson, DJ Johnson and Adrian Diaz were all held to seven points or fewer.
“We have been focusing on defense and you can tell that,” Spradling said. “We’ve been a great defensive team. Now we are going to focus on offense. You can tell that our offense is struggling. Hopefully by next week we will be a little more fluid.
“We haven’t been running it great anyways. Our bigs haven’t been in this offense at any level, so they really don’t understand it yet. Once we get the bigs and the guards on the same page and we know where to screen and when to cut we will be a lot better.”
K-State (5-1) will get more than a week of practice to work out those kinks before returning to action against South Carolina-Upstate on Dec. 2, but it clearly has lots of work to do.
It survived in the first half thanks to second-chance points, buckets in transition and defense, trailing 29-24 at half. But Michigan was by far the better team in the second half. It made several adjustments in the locker room, and took a 21-point lead before 10 minutes had run off the clock.
“It’s a missed opportunity,” said senior guard Rodney McGruder, who scored a team-high 16 points. “There aren’t too many times you play the No. 4 team in the country in Madison Square Garden.”
The Wildcats showed signs of improvement in the final moments, including McGruder scoring 14 points in the final 11 minutes, but the game was already decided. He didn’t become aggressive until it was too late, and he wasn’t sure why.
“I don’t really know,” McGruder said. “I can’t say anything.”
Weber tried to explain.
“Maybe at the end he let loose and played,” Weber said. “He was cutting hard and doing some things. He’s got to shoot open shots. We joke that maybe he’s never been this open, because he never takes them. He is going to be a good player for us, there’s no doubt.
“If we are going to be a good team you have to have your top guys play well, especially our seniors.”
That means McGruder and Henriquez will need to become more involved. They combined for six points and were on the bench when Michigan (5-0) started to pull away behind Tim Hardaway Jr., who scored 23 points and grabbed seven rebounds.
The son of the former NBA star showed off NBA skills, and made 10 of 15 shots. Nik Stauskas and Trey Burke each scored 10 points.
“The season is a marathon,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “This is maybe the first 400 yards or something of that marathon, but we ran it well.”
As for K-State, it needs to pick up the pace.
“We’re right there,” McGruder said. “It’s right there. The coach from Michigan, he has been there with those guys for a while. That system isn’t new to them. That’s what they do. It’s new to us, but we’ve got to execute. No excuses, we’ve got to execute better and play better.”