Thomas Gipson has been more than a big man for Kansas State this season. He has been the biggest man.
The junior forward is the tallest, heaviest and strongest player on a small roster, which means coach Bruce Weber often asks him to take on opposing frontcourts by himself while teammates spread the floor with speed and athleticism.
It’s a strategy that works. K-State is on a 10-game winning streak, and Gipson is averaging 11.9 points and 6.5 rebounds. He has been at his best in Big 12 play, recording a double-double in the conference opener and scoring 19 points against TCU.
But he may need to be even better in his next game. Though he has held his own against all sorts of players, he hasn’t faced a frontcourt as talented and deep as the one he will see against Kansas on Saturday.
“They just have so much depth,” Weber said of Kansas bigs Joel Embiid, Perry Ellis, Tarik Black and Jamari Traylor. “Last year, they had a few guys and they could maybe sub someone in. This year they have Black, who was a veteran starter at Memphis. Some games he plays five minutes. When they do get in foul trouble he is coming in.
“When you look at him, he is a stud. So they just have so much depth there. The freshman big kid (Embiid) is impressive. His post moves and his mobility. ... He doesn’t flinch.”
The closest thing Gipson has seen to that lineup was Gonzaga, which featured three tall, skilled forwards. But the Bulldogs’ were at a disadvantage that day at Intrust Bank Arena because Sam Dower left the game before halftime with a back injury and Gonzaga went small the rest of the way. Gipson also missed out on a shot at Oklahoma State’s best lineup when starting forward Michael Cobbins tore an Achilles. The Cowboys also decided to go small.
For the most part, Gipson and K-State have matched up well with opponents during their winning streak. That won’t be the case against Kansas.
“They are strong and they are tall, but I have faced that before,” Gipson said. “We have all faced that before. It is just going to be another challenge for us going on the road and getting a win.”
Gipson’s biggest challenge may be staying out of foul trouble. He picked up fouls left and right a year ago at Allen Fieldhouse, and Kansas sprinted to a big early lead. And that was with Jordan Henriquez and Adrian Diaz, both taller forwards, coming off the bench to replace him. This time around, his potential replacements include unproven sophomore D.J. Johnson and 6-foot-5 Nino Williams.
“He has to stay out of foul trouble,” Weber said. “Their depth and their strength is their big guys. D.J. is going to have to play well. Nino is going to have to play well. ... We have to play good defense without fouling. It’s like any other game, you have to be in the right position, contest shots and hope they don’t get on a heat check.”
Gipson knows what he has to do.
“I am going to have to avoid foul trouble so I can stay on the court,” Gipson said. “It is a challenge, but each game that has been a challenge. I feel like I have done a pretty good in that department so far.”
One thing that might help him is K-State’s team approach to rebounds. Shane Southwell, Marcus Foster and Wesley Iwundu all average at least 3.9 rebounds.
If they can continue to help on the glass, Gipson can be more aggressive in other areas.
“They are bigger, but every team is bigger than us,” Southwell said. “Kansas and Coach (Bill) Self does a really good job of using their bigs ... But I know our bigs are looking forward to it, especially Thomas and Nino. We might not have the names of their bigs, but we have a really good front court, as well.”