SEATTLE — Nine games into the basketball season, Kansas State is exactly where the oddsmakers predicted.
The Wildcats have won seven times as favorites and lost twice as underdogs.
All of their victories have come at home or against teams from small conferences. Each of their losses, including a 68-52 setback against No. 14 Gonzaga on Saturday in front of 16,241 rowdy fans at Key Arena, have come away from home against ranked teams.
Though none of those results can be considered surprising, K-State players were hoping for more after playing Michigan, a national championship contender, tough for a half in the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off before losing 71-57. Instead, the game unfolded in nearly identical fashion.
“It’s not a step back, but we obviously didn’t take any steps forward,” said junior guard Will Spradling, who scored eight points in 34 minutes.
How did this game mirror the Michigan loss? The Wildcats (7-2) stayed within 29-24 of the Wolverines at halftime, and thought they had a chance in the second half. But Michigan pulled away with physical play and won easily.
Gonzaga (10-1) led 27-26 at half on Saturday, and K-State once again went into the locker room thinking upset.
“We went in at halftime and said we are in the same situation as Michigan,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “We have got to have a better start to the second half.”
Gonzaga came out of the locker room motivated and took advantage of two K-State turnovers to go on a 9-0 run. It took over the game from there. Once Gonzaga led by double digits, the Wildcats were never able to challenge again.
K-State put up a better fight against Gonzaga than some other Big 12 teams — the Bulldogs beat West Virginia and Oklahoma by more than 20 points — but that didn’t mean much to the Wildcats when it was over. Behind the hot shooting of Angel Rodriguez, who hit three three-pointers in the first half and scored 14 points, they were competitive for 20 minutes. But with the team shooting 33.percent from the field, that wasn’t nearly enough to hang around until the end.
“We didn’t execute offensively like in the first half,” Rodriguez said. “I thought they played harder than us. Their bigs got going and they started making plays and their crowd got into it. From there, they just played better overall.”
Kelly Olynyk led Gonzaga with 20 points, but the Bulldogs had several forwards play well. Elias Harris had 10 points and seven rebounds and Przemek Karnowski played tough defense.
Rodriguez and Spradling did what they could to keep the game close by making a few three-pointers, and Shane Southwell came off the bench to score seven points. But the Wildcats struggled to find points from the rest of the roster.
Senior swingman Rodney McGruder didn’t score his first points until he made a pair of free throws with 9:10 remaining and senior forward Jordan Henriquez was held scoreless. It was another tough day for Weber’s motion offense, which hasn’t been effective against top-level defenses.
Players are still struggling to be in the right position at all times, and open shots are hard to come by.
“We have to get better on offense,” Spradling said. “That was our biggest thing tonight. We guarded them, especially in the first half. They barely had 30 points. That’s a lot less than they normally have. As long as we get better on offense, we will be fine.”
What does K-State need to do for that to happen?
“We have to get open,” Spradling said. “We struggled tonight just getting into our offense. That was one of the biggest things, getting that first catch. We have got to get better at that.”
The Wildcats will get a chance to improve on Tuesday with a game against Texas Southern at Bramlage Coliseum. But their next true test will come at the Sprint Center on Dec. 22 against a ranked Florida team.
If they want to breakthrough against a name opponent, they will need to learn from their struggles against Michigan and Gonzaga.
“We talk about being tough,” Weber said. “But now you’ve got to do it on the court for 40 minutes.”