It’s been a long time since college basketball experts predicted Kansas State to miss the NCAA Tournament.
You have to go back to 2005, before Bob Huggins took over the Wildcats and then handed the program over to Frank Martin, that preseason expectations were as low as now. K-State won a share of the Big 12 championship in Bruce Weber’s debut season and it returns three starters, but an offseason filled with transfers has many doubting what Weber can accomplish in Year 2.
Some would dwell on those negative opinions. Not these Wildcats.
“I hope they noticed,” Weber said. “I hope our players are paying attention to that.”
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“They can pick us wherever they want,” added junior forward Thomas Gipson. “We were picked low last year and won the conference. There’s no reason why we can’t do it again.”
Well, that might be a stretch. But K-State certainly does have the talent to finish in the upper half of the conference standings and to make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Shane Southwell was an emerging star as a junior. Gipson has lost more than 20 pounds and expects to play a bigger role inside. Will Spradling has put on 15 pounds of muscle, and vows that no one will push him around anymore. Throw in underrated freshman guard Marcus Foster, a strong scorer, and an overall upgrade in athleticism and K-State has the potential to overachieve.
But a lack of size, depth and proven players raises too many questions to expect another strong season. It will be one of the youngest and smallest teams in the Big 12.
None of K-State’s freshmen were considered heralded recruits, Spradling is making the difficult move from shooting guard to point guard, and it’s unclear who the Wildcats will lean on for points.
Southwell could become a go-to scorer, but can he handle increased attention on defense? Spradling has the look of an improved player, but can he shake the inconsistencies that have held him back in the past? And coaches are high on new point guard Jevon Thomas, but he won’t become eligible until late December. Can he make an impact in half a season?
A soft nonconference schedule will help the Wildcats develop. But early games against Mississippi and Gonzaga, and a trip to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off could all end in defeat.
A top-heavy Big 12 should also help K-State grab wins late in the year, but it’s hard to envision the Wildcats competing with league favorites Kansas and Oklahoma State the way they did last year. Baylor will also be a superior team. How they fair against the rest of the conference will ultimately decide where they finish.
Everything from fourth to seventh seems possible.
The Big 12 coaches picked them to finish fifth. The Wildcats think they can do better. Heading into a year filled with questions, that’s a good place to start.