MANHATTAN — Kansas State's first basketball practice is Friday, and coach Frank Martin gets to begin meshing veterans and the newcomers brought in to replace six scholarship players from last year's team.
"We've got a group of guys who are extremely experienced and then we've got a group of guys who have absolutely no experience," Martin said. "The way those two groups connect will determine how good we can be as a team."
Martin can say one thing with total certainty. K-State will play a different style this season.
Omari Lawrence, Jeremy Jones and Angel Rodriguez all bring speed and athleticism that the Wildcats didn't have last season. They will have the freedom to attack the basket. Adrian Diaz, Thomas Gipson and James Watson bring much- needed size inside. Combined with Jordan Henriquez and Jamar Samuels, Martin isn't worried about production inside or a lack of depth.
"We're more athletic and longer than we were last year," Martin said. "Last year we had to kind of back off a little bit from how we like to play defensively and how we like to play offensively. It was something that had to be done with that team."
That meant running trap plays and relying on zone and soft man-to-man strategies. On offense, it often meant passing to Jacob Pullen and getting out of the way.
"This year we will be able to be a little more aggressive defensively again," Martin said. "We're long and interchangeable, therefore we can do some different things defensively than maybe we've done in the past. We have always had guys out there that had some shortcomings athletically or in length.
"Then on offense I think we'll have depth again, meaning that we can put that pedal to the metal and start running a little bit more."
Playing the way Martin prefers should help a team that has been predicted to finish sixth in Big 12 by the league's coaches and failed to land a player on the coaches' preseason all-conference team.
Though Martin said he didn't read into the predictions, he said Rodney McGruder should be better than expected this season. The junior small forward led K-State with 5.9 rebounds and averaged 11.1 points while playing through an undisclosed knee injury. He is healthy and ready to lead.
Another nice surprise to this season's roster: The bulk of Samuels, a senior forward. At the end of last season, he weighed 201 pounds and became a target for criticism from his coach. During the summer, Martin challenged Samuels to prove himself in the weight room and properly prepare for his final season.
He responded well. At a weigh-in earlier this month, Samuels weighed 233 pounds.
"He doesn't look like a lizard anymore. He actually looks like a Division I athlete out there," Martin said.".. We've been preaching it. I think it's finally registered. You can tell right away that he's a stronger player."