MANHATTAN — The start of conference basketball is always meaningful for Kansas State.
The days of facing mostly nondescript opponents from small conferences are over, and so are the days of playing in front of sparse crowds. From now on, games gain importance. They all count toward the pursuit of a league championship.
K-State senior swingman Rodney McGruder has been here before, but this is his last chance.
“I am excited and cannot wait,” McGruder said. “The other day, before we played, I was watching a couple of games and it just got me amped and ready for conference play to start. I try to accomplish things that I have not accomplished the three years prior to this year. I am excited.”
The Wildcats will kickoff Big 12 play with an intriguing game against Oklahoma State on Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum. Though they have played each other 119 times over the years, this will be their third meeting as ranked opponents. The No. 22 Cowboys beat Tennessee and North Carolina State in Puerto Rico and have won the majority of their 10 games by wide margins. Their only losses came to Virginia Tech on the road and to Gonzaga, which also beat K-State, by a point at home.
No. 25 K-State has taken care of business so far, beating 10 overmatched opponents, but also owns an impressive victory over No. 13 Florida. Its two losses came on neutral courts to No. 2 Michigan and No. 14 Gonzaga.
Both teams are projected to finish near the top of the Big 12 standings, but the winner of this opener starts with an advantage.
“They are a great team,” McGruder said. “We just have to come out and bring it. They are coming into our home and we have to protect our home court. I look forward to it.”
Young talent is what has made Oklahoma State an improved team. In Le’Bryan Nash and Marcus Smart, Cowboys coach Travis Ford has assembled a talented nucleus that he can build on. But they are inexperienced. Nash is a sophomore. Smart is a freshman. That could hurt their chances in Big 12 play, but Wildcat coach Bruce Weber, who spent time around Smart in youth USA basketball teams, is impressed.
“To me, it is amazing,” Weber said. “Not only are they good offensively, but they are good defensively. I think last year if you watched them, it was a question mark for their team. With three freshmen playing, they were pretty good defensively. … They have some depth and versatility.”
Junior guard Shane Southwell is expecting a defensive challenge.
“Anybody on their team can go and everybody can jump and score,” Southwell said. “Everybody has to play individual and team defense.”
So does K-State now that guards Angel Rodriguez and Martavious Irving are returning to health. It had a less-than-stellar week without them, beating UMKC and South Dakota, though unimpressively at times. But they took care of business and appear ready to take on Oklahoma State.
Still, Weber thinks it will take a complete effort for K-State to continue riding the momentum that came from upsetting Florida at Sprint Center. Nothing that has happened so far will matter when K-State begins the Big 12’s double round-robin schedule.
“We need them,” Weber said. “We can grind and fight without them, but if we are going to be really good, we need those guys. It would be nice to have both of them healthy, but I think I need the seniors to play well. It is their team and season. When they all played well, we beat Florida. If that happens on a consistent basis, we can be good.”