MANHATTAN — Will Spradling understands why some are doubting Kansas State.
The Wildcats lost three of their first five basketball games and waited until early December to land a notable victory. That sluggish start left considerable ground to make up for a team that was picked to finish fifth in the Big 12. Even after eight straight victories, few consider them serious contenders.
Still, the senior guard is surprised K-State’s first Big 12 game — a 3 p.m. tip against No. 6 Oklahoma State on Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum — is receiving so little buzz. The Cowboys are the highest-ranked team in the league and the Wildcats shared the conference crown last year.
Shouldn’t that make this a must-see game?
“We won it last year so everybody has got to come through here,” Spradling said. “I was reading something the other day that said the Big 12 goes through Lawrence. It was kind of upsetting, because it didn’t even say anything about us (also) winning it last year. It said KU won the Big 12 last year, so everything has to go through Lawrence. But it also goes through here.”
A victory over Oklahoma State would serve as a reminder.
K-State opened conference play with a 73-67 victory over Oklahoma State a year ago and used that momentum to ultimately tie Kansas for a league title. It is hoping to do the same this time around.
“We have something to defend,” junior forward Nino Williams said. “We are the reigning champs. The last couple of games have proved that we can guard anybody. Gonzaga is one of the best offensive teams in the country. We are just coming in with a defensive mindset.”
Few teams enter conference play on a bigger hot streak. K-State hasn’t lost since Thanksgiving and has defeated Mississippi, Gonzaga and George Washington in the past month. Its offense, which is averaging 67 points on 41-percent shooting, could use improvement, but its defense, which hasn’t allowed more than 62 points in its winning streak, is as strong as they come.
Of course, those numbers have come against mostly inferior competition. Navigating the Big 12, which is home to four top 16 teams, will be much harder.
“I feel like we are ready,” Spradling said, “especially the way we have played the last month.”
Oklahoma State’s starting trio of Markel Brown, Le’Bryan Nash and Marcus Smart will be the toughest challenge K-State has faced.
Wildcats coach Bruce Weber considers the Cowboys the team to beat in the Big 12.
“We have held a lot of teams down,” Weber said. “This is one of the best offensive teams in the country. We are going to see if we can do it again.”
The emergence of freshman point guard Jevon Thomas will help. He came off the bench and shut down George Washington’s guards. He will provide much-needed energy and extra fouls against Oklahoma State. The absence of OSU forward Michael Cobbins should give K-State forward Thomas Gipson an edge inside, as well.
He may need to take advantage. This is the type of game contenders win.
“This is our home court,” Weber said. “We are going to have to play well and play strong and all that, but we have to protect our home court if we want to compete for the Big 12 race.”