MANHATTAN — Shane Southwell is on a roll. He is joking about how he looks a little like Will Smith and he is talking confidently about the upcoming basketball season. The media surrounding him laugh and nod in unison after every word.
Then comes a question that breaks his focus.
What is your ideal position?
He isn’t sure how to respond. Another joke? A half answer that dances around the query? After a few silent moments, he smiles and decides to speak honestly.
“I am confident in my abilities to play the one, two, three or four and maybe even the five, honestly,” Southwell says. “My ideal position is, give me the ball. Just give me the ball and I feel comfortable. I feel comfortable at every spot on the floor right now. I worked hard to get to this point. It doesn’t matter where I play.”
Southwell will need to maintain that attitude throughout his senior year. The 6-foot-7 swingman has never had a set position, and he seems unlikely to receive one in his final season at Kansas State. He rotated between both guard spots in a mostly reserve role as an underclassman. Then he became a hybrid power forward last season, turning in promising results that included career highs in points (8.4) and rebounds (3.8). He made the switch midseason and was viewed as one of the most improved players in the Big 12, reaching double figures nine times. He is the team’s leading returning scorer.
His size allowed him to defend opposing power forwards. His ball-handling skills, shooting ability and quickness helped him score inside and out. His basketball knowledge helped him read plays and snag rebounds. He came to K-State as a guard, but seemed at home under the basket.
“He is a great mismatch at the four,” senior teammate Will Spradling says. “There are not many big men in our league that can defend him.”
That begs another question: Why not let him stay at power forward full time?
If K-State was blessed with proven talent at every position, coach Bruce Weber says he would let Southwell continue to play there exclusively. One of the first things he did after arriving in Manhattan was try to convince Southwell to move inside.
He needed injuries and a slow start to get Southwell to give it a try, but he thrived.
“Shane didn’t want anything to do with it,” Weber says. “But he learned he’s so intelligent he can overcome his lack of size by just being smart, whether it’s post defense or boxing out. On offense he can taken advantage of his opponents most of the time.”
But K-State was a different team last year. Rodney McGruder was one of the Big 12’s top scorers, Angel Rodriguez was an up-and-coming point guard and Jordan Henriquez was the program’s career leader in blocked shots. All three are gone now, and the Wildcats will rely on freshmen and former reserves to take their place.
In this lineup, Southwell will likely spend most of his time at power forward, but K-State is low on ball-handlers, post players and scorers. He might have to spend time at point guard, on the wing and with his back to the basket. He is the only person on the roster versatile enough to play in all three areas. He is also the team’s best option to become a go-to player.
“We have got to play our best players,” Weber says. “As a coach you want to have the best guys on the court. There might be a few minutes here and there where he plays the three and Nino (Williams) plays the four. He might be a pure point. Some of our best highlights last year were when Shane brought the ball up on the fast break.”
Southwell will be asked to wear a lot of hats. For K-State to challenge for a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, he will need to lead, score, produce at several positions and do it all while receiving increased defensive attention.
After he scored points against Kansas last year, Bill Self was so surprised that he proclaimed Southwell to be the Big 12’s most improved player. Everyone will know his capabilities this year.
“It will be interesting, because he will be looked at differently in the scouting report,” associate head coach Chris Lowery says. “He’s not fourth or fifth or on down the road. He is up at the top. He is smart enough to understand that. He has done a good job of that. We are just looking forward to it being his turn.
“It’s really his team. He knows what the senior class did before him. Now he can get to the NCAA Tournament all four years by himself. He has the same opportunity. It’s up to him to keep that streak going. It’s pressure, but it’s good pressure.”
Southwell sees thing another way.
“I don’t see it as pressure, because I feel that I can do it,” Southwell says. “The pressure is for those who don’t think they can do it. I don’t see it as that big of a deal. I am confident in my abilities.”
Southwell has come a long way since he signed with K-State.
Leading up to his freshman year, he wrote on Twitter that he would be so successful as a point guard that he would leave college early and be playing in the NBA by now.
Things didn’t unfold that way. He was a reserve. He switched positions. Now he is being asked to lead K-State in scoring while playing all over the court.
It isn’t want he envisioned. But it is what he wants.
“I’m ready for this. I have been waiting for this my whole life,” Southwell says. “When I got here I was a knucklehead, yeah, a dummy, a real immature person. I thought my freshman year and my sophomore year I was going to tear it up here. But I didn’t work hard enough. I wasn’t mature enough to handle that ... Now I feel like I am ready for that opportunity.”