Ignore the Big 12 preseason basketball poll. Kansas State has the talent, depth and experience to finish in the top half of the conference standings this season.
Being picked eighth by the league’s coaches will provide motivation to a team that didn’t want to play the no-respect card, but is probably better off as the underdog.
Replacing Wesley Iwundu (a second-round NBA draft pick) and D.J. Johnson (a physical and dependable inside presence) won’t be easy, but the Wildcats have the pieces to take a step forward without them.
Start with a trio of juniors who have been together for 68 games. Barry Brown, Kamau Stokes and Dean Wade have steadily improved since arriving together on campus, and appear ready to become leaders.
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The Wildcats don’t have any scholarship seniors, but what these three juniors lack in age they make up for in experience. They are multi-year starters, they have played in hostile environments, and they have reached the NCAA Tournament.
Brown averaged 11.7 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists last season, at times playing like the Wildcats go-to scorer. But he lacked consistency. If he can have more 20-point games and fewer off nights, he could push for all-conference honors.
Stokes returned for his junior year after flirting with the NBA in the spring. He also averaged 11.7 points last season, emerging as the team’s top three-point shooter. If he can dish out more assists and cut down on turnovers, the Wildcats could have one of the best back courts in the Big 12.
Wade remains a bit of an enigma, but here’s guessing he finally shakes his timid approach on offense and plays like an alpha male this season. Wade has been K-State’s best player in each of the past two seasons, when he wants to be. There have simply been too many times when he looked to take a back seat. How else can you explain his 20-point games against Kansas and his disappearing acts against other opponents?
If all three play up to expectations, K-State will take its chances.
Sophomore Xavier Sneed also looks to be a major contributor now that he has conquered the freshman wall. Sneed had an excellent preseason, and appears poised to live up to the recruiting hype that surrounded him in high school.
With talented guards Brian Patrick, Cartier Diarra, Amaad Wainright and Mike McGuirl coming off the bench, K-State should be set from point guard to power forward. Center is the question mark.
K-State coach Bruce Weber says the Wildcats will handle the position by committee, with newcomers Makol Mawien and Mawdo Sallah likely splitting time. Freshmen Nigel Shadd and Levi Stockard could also be factors.
One problem: the Wildcats will be smaller this season. Rebounding won’t be easy, and Weber is encouraging everyone from Stokes to Sallah to crash the boards.
The nonconference schedule is once again filled with mostly overmatched opponents, with only the Las Vegas Invitational and games against Vanderbilt and Georgia standing out. If K-State can enter Big 12 play with double-digit wins, it will be in good shape to reach 20 victories and return to the NCAA Tournament.
The Big 12 should be filled with parity this season, and K-State can take advantage with a good year.
Weber can win with this group, and that’s exactly what he needs to do. New athletic director Gene Taylor gave Weber a two-year contract extension over the summer, but Weber remains unpopular with many fans.
K-State hasn’t finished better than sixth in the Big 12 since 2014. Some doubt that will change this year, but don’t surprised if the Wildcats exceed expectations.
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett