MANHATTAN — Kansas State has a long way to go before its players are labeled gifted scorers, but the Wildcats are headed in the right direction.
Their last game was a prime example.
K-State made 54.9 percent of its shots, had 22 assists on 28 baskets and made nine three-pointers. That production, combined with a typically strong effort on defense, allowed K-State to pummel West Virginia 78-56.
That’s a far cry from early in the season, when the Wildcats held opponents in the 50s and won at the buzzer.
“You want to be solid on both ends. The best teams do both,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “We had so many new guys early that we had to decide what we were really going to emphasize. These guys would tell you that two-thirds of our practices were probably defense early. I think that’s why we struggled.
“That is why I try to be patient with the younger guys’ shot selection. Our shot selection has gotten much better than what is was earlier in the year, but if you guard people it gives you a chance to win.”
Defense is still K-State’s identity. That won’t change anytime soon. It leads the Big 12 in scoring defense (59.9 points) and three-point percentage defense (26.7 percent), and it ranks second in field-goal percentage defense (39.5 percent). That is where it wins most games.
But the Wildcats are trending up on offense. Though they still rank near the bottom of the conference in most statistical categories, they average nearly 70 points in league games while shooting 45.4 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from three. Both of those numbers rank in the top half of the Big 12.
Perhaps best of all, they rank third in assists with more than 14 per game.
“We are sharing the ball really well,” junior forward Thomas Gipson said. “We are playing more together. Sometimes the ball stays at the top of the key and we need to move it, but we can always improve. I just think on the offensive end we are playing more together and trusting each other more. That is why we have a lot of assists.”
Opposing coaches have noticed.
“Everyone wants to talk about their defense,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “Their defense is good, do not get me wrong, but offensively they make you work. They pass it and cut and end up with a pretty good shot. Their offense is good, they have good patience. They pass the ball.”
Of course, the bulk of K-State’s improvements have come at home. It is averaging 62.5 points on the road.
That didn’t hurt the Wildcats in their first road game against TCU, but it led to a blowout loss at Kansas.
They are in the mix for another conference title, thanks to a 4-1 start. But they may need to win away from Bramlage Coliseum before outsiders validate them as true contenders.
Odds are, they will need an above-average game on offense to beat Texas on Tuesday night at the Erwin Center. The Longhorns have won three in a row and they are coming off an 86-76 victory over Iowa State. Their offense, which averages 78.3 points, ranks 46th nationally.
Texas also features a big frontcourt, which always give K-State problems. Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes combine for nearly 24 points and 15 rebounds. And the Longhorns lead the Big 12 in blocked shots.
K-State plans to neutralize that duo as much as possible on defense. But it might need another strong effort on offense, too.
“I have really tried to hammer that now is the time to get better,” Weber said. “We have got to improve by keeping our solid defense that we’ve had, and also get better on offense. If we can do that, we can stay in the race. It is going to be a tough task.
“We have a stretch here where we will see if we can stay in the top of the heap by winning on the road. How do you do that? You’ve got to guard, you’ve got to rebound and you’ve got to be solid on offense.”