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K-State hopes Iwundu’s struggles are behind him

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, March 2, 2014, at 4:40 p.m.

Photos

Kansas State at Oklahoma State

When: 8 p.m. Monday

Where: Gallagher-Iba Arena, Stillwater, Okla.

Records: KSU 20-9, 10-6 Big 12; OSU 19-10, 7-9

Radio: KQAM, 1480-AM; KWLS, 107.9-FM

TV: ESPN

Kansas State at Oklahoma State

PKansas StateHt.Yr. PtsReb
FThomas Gipson6-7Jr.11.76.3
FWesley Iwundu6-7Fr.6.94.1
GWill Spradling6-2Sr.8.13.2
GMarcus Foster6-2Fr.15.13.4
GNino Williams6-5Jr.6.23.3
Oklahoma State
CKamari Murphy6-8So.6-26.3
FLe’Bryan Nash6-7Jr.14.45.7
GMarcus Smart6-4So.17.65.7
GMarkel Brown6-3Sro.16.95.4
GPhil Forte5-11So.12.91.7

Kansas State (20-9, 10-6): The Wildcats have more or less clinched a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Where K-State finishes in the Big 12 standings is a mystery. They are in a four-way tie for second with Iowa State, Oklahoma and Texas, which makes their final two games meaningful. If they win both games, they will claim the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, due to tie-breakers. But they have the hardest remaining schedule of the group. Oklahoma State, which just defeated Kansas at home, will be favored on Monday. K-State hasn’t played well on the road, winning two of eight games. But it did win its last road game, at Texas Tech.

Oklahoma State (19-10, 7-9): The Cowboys boosted their fading hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament by defeating Kansas on Saturday. They have looked like a different team since Marcus Smart returned from his three-game suspsension for shoving a fan at Texas Tech. Oklahoma State has won three in a row after losing seven straight. Smart has been the biggest difference. But Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown have also played important roles. Oklahoma State challenged K-State at Bramlage Coliseum earlier this season before losing by three.

RPIs as of Friday: K-State 36, OSU 45.

— Long ago, college basketball coaches created the term “freshman wall” as a way to explain why their youngest players often struggled near the end of their rookie seasons.

But does such a thing really exist?

It all depends on who you ask. Some will say no. Others, like K-State freshman forward Wesley Iwundu, who considers himself an expert on the topic, will say yes.

“I definitely think there is,” Iwundu said. “I will tell you I hit it pretty hard. It’s not a good experience at all. I am still bouncing back from it.”

Iwundu thinks he crashed into the metaphorical wall in the middle of February, when his play declined sharply. He went from averaging seven points and 4.3 rebounds and being one of K-State’s best passers to going scoreless in back-to-back games and hardly playing.

One day he was one of the most consistent players on the roster, a 28-game starter who rarely shined but always did the little things right. The next, he was a liability.

The dropoff was so drastic and sudden that his teammates began to worry. So, at a team meeting leading up to a road game at Texas Tech, they shared more than a few harsh words with him.

Fellow freshman Marcus Foster remembers telling him: “We need the old Wes back.”

“They felt like I wasn’t preparing for games the way I needed to,” Iwundu said. “It’s something I just need to improve, find different and better ways to prepare for games. That really hit me hard. This team needs everybody. So I had to step up.”

Iwundu has. He regained his old form in the past two games, scoring 12 points and making key plays in a narrow win at Texas Tech and then producing 11 points, five rebounds and three assists in a victory over Iowa State.

“He got back to doing the little things,” Foster said. “That helps us a lot. He takes our team to another level going into the tournament.”

“Hopefully, he got the message,” added K-State coach Bruce Weber. “He can do so many things. He is so active. He hit a wall in a hard season, but we need him.”

Iwundu may be one of K-State’s most important players when the Wildcats take the floor against Oklahoma State at 8 p.m. on Monday. The Cowboys have a thin, undersized frontcourt with Michael Cobbins nursing a season-ending injury. Iwundu will need to play well for K-State to take advantage.

Iwundu had nine points and three rebounds when K-State downed Oklahoma State earlier this season. He is capable of more — as long as the “freshman wall” doesn’t get in the way.

Reach Kellis Robinett at krobinett@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @kellisrobinett.

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