MANHATTAN — A signature victory over Florida vaulted Kansas State into the top 25 and a come-from-behind win over Oklahoma State gave it enough momentum to reach the top of the conference standings. Neither of those memorable games are the main reason it is tied for the Big 12 lead today.
The Wildcats have a lack of ugly losses to thank for that.
Few teams have been better about avoiding upsets than No. 10 K-State under new coach Bruce Weber. It has taken care of business in every game it was supposed to win, going 11-2 in nonconference play and 9-3 in league games. Four of the Wildcats’ five losses have come to top 15 opponents — No. 4 Michigan, No. 5 Gonzaga and No. 14 Kansas twice. The other came against Iowa State at Hilton Coliseum, where the Cyclones have won 21 straight.
K-State has downed every other team on the schedule, from North Dakota to Baylor, and stayed with Kansas and Oklahoma State in the league race while the Jayhawks suffered a humiliating defeat at last-place TCU and the Cowboys lost their first three conference road games.
The Wildcats hope to keep that trend going against West Virginia during a “Big Monday” clash at Bramlage Coliseum. They enter as 10-point favorites and beat the Mountaineers last month in Morgantown.
“You’ve got to earn victories against them,” Weber said. “They are not going to hand it to you. I’m afraid to even talk about it, because you can hex yourself, but if you guard I think you win the games you are supposed to. If you do the right things, share the ball, I hope if you play the game the right way you avoid those upsets. I hope we can do it the rest of the way.”
K-State will need to if it hopes to stay in contention for its first conference championship since 1977. It may be favored in its next five games — West Virginia, at Texas, Texas Tech, at Baylor and TCU — before closing out the regular season at Oklahoma State.
“We have a chance to win the Big 12, we can’t let games like that slip away,” sophomore guard Angel Rodriguez said. “We haven’t had a bad loss. We should have won at Iowa State, we should have won at home against Kansas, too. But that stuff happens. You just have to deal with it.”
So far, the Wildcats have. Their only back-to-back losses came against Kansas and Iowa State, but they have followed every other defeat with a strong effort. They have also won in different situations by using different styles.
They beat Delaware, George Washington and Oklahoma away from home in close, low-scoring games. They crushed Texas and Baylor at Bramlage Coliseum with 80-point efforts.
K-State players say those victories are a product of improved focus and “team defense.” They are allowing fewer than 60 points per game, and rank in the top three of the Big 12 in five defensive statistical categories, including rebounding, turnover margin and three-point percentage.
“On the season I think we are one of the better defensive teams around,” senior guard Martavious Irving said. “Sometimes, like Kansas for instance, we are going up and down the whole game and it got tough. We still need work against quick guards. But we have been tough on the season as a whole.”
Weber credits former coach Frank Martin for establishing a strong defensive base to build from.
“We tweaked some principles, some habits, but a lot of defense is desire and pride,” Weber said. “That was there.”
Last year, the Wildcats lost twice to Oklahoma, which finished with a losing record. They were never in the mix for a conference title.
This season, they have been tough enough to win easily when they make shots and win close against teams they are expected to beat when offense comes hard.
“It’s been a positive step for us,” senior guard Rodney McGruder said. “Against the teams we are supposed to beat this year we just go out and execute the things we are capable of and work on in practice. It’s a focus thing.”