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Commentary Bob Lutz: Kansas State has forced its way into the conversation

  • Published Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, at 7:03 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Dec. 22, 2013, at 8:31 a.m.

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Remember Kansas State’s season-opening loss at Bramlage Coliseum to Northern Colorado?

Or did you conveniently choose to forget about it?

Don’t worry, you wouldn’t be the only Kansas State fan to try to scrub that one from the memory bank. Some were so disgusted that they wrote the Wildcats off for 2013-14, refusing to see any hope.

It didn’t help that K-State dropped a game to Charlotte in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off last month, then was blown out and embarrassed the next day by Georgetown.

The Wildcats were destined to play a quiet third fiddle in a state with Kansas and Wichita State beating the drums.

Well, on Saturday afternoon at Intrust Bank Arena, K-State took that third fiddle and smashed it over Gonzaga’s head, beating the Bulldogs 72-62.

Want to relegate the Wildcats to anonymity in a state with two powerhouses? Do so at your own risk.

Kansas State changed its perception Saturday, at least for now.

“Obviously it’s a great win for us,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “I hope we changed some of the perception. We thought we were a better team than our start (to the season) showed. We were a new team and when you don’t have Gip (Thomas Gipson) … I thought we would have won a couple of more games with him.

“But we learned from it. I think we were humbled and embarrassed in Puerto Rico. We came back from there and we’ve been much better in practice. We’re learning our roles.”

Count me among those who expected little from Kansas State on Saturday against No. 21 Gonzaga, which had won 10 of 11.

I would have been in Lawrence on Saturday for KU’s game against Georgetown had it not been for the weather. Kansas State, for me and many others, was an afterthought.

That changed Saturday.

The Wildcats have an interesting blend of players. There are veterans like Gipson and guards Shane Southwell and Will Spradling. But it’s freshmen Wesley Iwundu and Marcus Foster who intrigue me most.

Foster had a couple of moves I haven’t seen yet from the more heralded freshman, KU’s Andrew Wiggins. He caught a second-half pass from Southwell and went extraordinarily high into the air before coming down for the slam dunk of all slam dunks.

Later, Foster maneuvered along the baseline for an artistic reverse layup that Dr. J would have appreciated.

Foster also made a couple of three-pointers and had six assists to go with his 14 points in 35 minutes.

Iwundu played just two fewer minutes than Foster and while he didn’t create the highlight reel plays his teammate came up with, he did have 13 points and made 9 of 11 free throws.

Another highly-touted freshman, point guard Jevon Thomas, has become eligible and should be on the court soon as Kansas State is getting a whole lot more interesting.

Don’t print NCAA Tournament tickets just yet. The Wildcats still have a dickens of a time scoring sometimes. And the bench is still in development mode, although Nino Williams and Nigel Johnson did combine for 12 points against Gonzaga.

Kansas State, though, is gaining an identity that revolves around defense. It’s the first thing Weber talks about and, more importantly, it’s the first thing his players talked about when asked about the key to beating Gonzaga.

“We kept their scoring low,” Foster said. “We defended them. This was a good win for us.”

Gonzaga was held nearly 26 points below its average. The Bulldogs’ five leading scorers — Kevin Pangos, Sam Dower, Gary Bell, Jr., Przemek Karnowski and Gerard Coleman — scored 67.1 points per game in the Zags’ first 11 games. Against K-State they had 31.

Dower did suffer an injury to his lower back late in the first half after taking a hard fall. He never returned.

But he was out there for 11 minutes in the first half and scored only four points.

Pangos and Bell, meanwhile, were both scoreless in the first half. They’re on the short list of best guard tandems in the country.

Weber wants K-State to be a defensive powerhouse. He credits assistants Chris Lowery and Chester Frazier as great instructors of how to defend.

“And today we made some strides offensively,” Weber said. “We shot 44 percent. And we actually made 76 percent (19 of 25) from the free-throw line. Maybe we’re making some strides in the scoring part of the game, too.”

Kansas State still has home games with Tulane and George Washington before the new year. And it would be foolish to think the Wildcats are to a point where they can look past anyone.

This is a team, after all, that barely survived South Dakota about two weeks ago.

But beating Gonzaga changes the discussion. It’s not wise to be so dismissive of the Wildcats now. Instead, it looks like there are three fascinating college basketball teams in the state of Kansas.

“Every time we step on the court we’re coming more together,” Gipson said. “I think people are noticing that. Our practices are so much better than they were at the beginning of the season. We’re becoming a team.”

A dangerous one, at that.

Reach Bob Lutz at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @blutz.

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