The opponent is fourth-ranked Michigan and the game will be played at Madison Square Garden. The winner will claim the NIT Season Tip-Off championship and celebrate the victory in front of an ESPN audience.
For Kansas State, November basketball games don’t come much bigger than this. The Wildcats will get the chance to prove themselves against a well-known foe and on a big stage.
“This means a lot to us, because nobody has really seen us against a good team and nobody knows how good we really are,” junior guard Will Spradling said. “Hopefully we can come out and play a good game. We are going up against a big-time team. If we can win, it will be a big statement for us.”
K-State might make a statement regardless of what happens. At 5-0, with four home victories over lesser teams and one over Delaware in the NIT semifinals, it is a hard team to judge.
Scoring is up from the Frank Martin era at 78.2 points per game, and so is execution with the team winning by an average of 28 points. But K-State played nervous in its first game at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, missing point-blank shots in the first half and struggling to slow Delaware’s top scorer late.
Was that a result of simple nerves from playing a close game under new coach Bruce Weber in a famous arena? Or was it something more?
Not even Weber knows for sure. How the Wildcats handle Michigan in Weber’s first game against a BCS-conference opponent will be more telling.
“If you want to be good, you have to play good teams and learn,” Weber said. “You’re going to play good teams in the Big 12, there’s no doubt about it. To play against top competition, it’s a valuable tool. Hopefully we’ll play a little more relaxed, keep playing hard, do the things we’ve done all year, and we’ll see what happens.”
Weber cherishes games like this. So much so that he dropped a home game in order to add Gonzaga to the nonconference schedule shortly after he arrived at K-State. He liked the idea of playing in the NIT Season Tip-Off, facing Florida at the Sprint Center and traveling to George Washington. But it wasn’t enough.
“We kind of had to scramble with the schedule,” Weber said.
A victory could push K-State into the top 25, and provide dividends later in the season. But winning won’t be easy.
The Wolverines, fresh off a 67-62 victory over Pittsburgh, will challenge the Wildcats. Trey Burke is one of the nation’s top guards, and Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III command respect in name alone.
They can shoot from the outside and are big enough to bang with any opponent inside.
Michigan is a physical team. Weber is used to facing Michigan from his time at Illinois. The scouting report should come easy.
“They are a Big 10 team, and he knows what kind of offense they run,” senior forward Jordan Henriquez said. “That gives us an advantage.”
K-State will take all the help it can get while playing one of the best teams in the country in a famous venue with a holiday tournament on the line. It has been looking forward to this for quite some time.
“We’re privileged to be playing in Madison Square Garden,” sophomore guard Angel Rodriguez said. “We came here to prove a point, me and my teammates and our coaching staff. We’re just ready to play.”