MANHATTAN — Some will say Kansas State’s basketball team has turned a corner over the past three weeks. Others will insist the Wildcats still have a long way to go.
The optimists can point to a five-game winning streak, which includes a victory over Mississippi, as legitimate progress. The doubters can point to K-State’s continuing offensive struggles, soft schedule and lack of success away from Bramlage Coliseum as noticeable blemishes.
Perhaps the argument will be resolved against No. 21 Gonzaga on Saturday at Intrust Bank Arena.
The Wildcats haven’t faced a ranked opponent. A victory would validate their recent success. A loss means they would have to prove themselves in conference play.
“We need this game just like we did last year when we played Florida,” K-State junior forward Thomas Gipson said. “We are in the same position, and we beat Florida. Hopefully we can get a good win against Gonzaga and keep going up from there.”
Added senior guard Will Spradling: “It’s a big opportunity for us. Obviously, we had some letdowns at the beginning of the year. This is a big game for us, and it could be a huge turning point for us.”
Winning won’t be easy, of course. The last time K-State played a team in Gonzaga’s class, it suffered its worst loss in years, falling 90-63 to Georgetown in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
The Wildcats haven’t lost since, though. So they enter Saturday’s game with momentum and confidence.
Maybe that will help them boost their ugly offensive numbers. Through 10 games they are averaging 66 points and shooting 40.1 percent from the field. They will need more to beat Gonzaga, which is averaging 87.5 points, making 52.6 percent of its shots and shooting 44.4 percent from three.
“They have always been a good offensive team,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “Right now they are up in the top 10 in the country in three-point percentage, scoring, and all those types of things. They have good offensive weapons.”
Junior guard Kevin Pangos is the best offensive weapon. He is averaging 18.7 points. Gary Bell, another junior guard, is averaging 14.5 points.
K-State will try to slow the game down with its defense the way it has done during its winning streak, but it will need to play well on both ends.
“(Gonzaga coach Mark Few) has had where he has had really good big people, and he has had where he has had really good guards, which is the case now,” Weber said. “He has rotated his system accordingly, and the thing that I have watched and admired from him is that they have gotten really good defensively over the years. I think they did not advance far in the NCAA a few times, and I think he took that to heart and really tried to get his defense better, which they have. They guard better than they did 10-12 years ago.”
Gonzaga showed off its defensive skills a year ago, defeating K-State 68-52 in Seattle.
The Bulldogs outmuscled the Wildcats in that game, and they will try to again in the rematch. Gonzaga’s frontcourt duo of Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski will challenge K-State’s small lineup from start to finish.
“This is going to be a major test for our bigs, and we are up to the challenge,” Gipson said. “They are real good. They can go right, left shoulder, 15-foot jump shot, and all that. We are going to be ready for them.”
His teammates all share the same approach.
For this game, motivation is easy to come by.
“Every game, with us being a young team, is a big game for us,” senior Shane Southwell said. “But since we took a setback losing to Northern Colorado we need to get wins, especially against high-resume teams. This team is going to be fighting for a top-three seed in the NCAA Tournament. To beat a team like that would be very big for us.”