The Justin Edwards fans see during games is beginning to resemble the Justin Edwards teammates rave about in practice.
Though the junior Kansas State guard won’t end up leading the team in scoring as some — most notably Marcus Foster — predicted at the season’s outset, he is slowly turning into the type of player the Wildcats can depend on to win important basketball games, such as a 6 p.m. tip Tuesday against No. 17 West Virginia at Bramlage Coliseum.
His numbers coming off the bench during conference play tell the story. Edwards scored 14 points last time out against Oklahoma State, hitting two three-pointers and driving to the basket with authority. He scored 12 points the game before that at Iowa State. He has scored at least nine points in five of K-State’s seven Big 12 games, bringing his scoring (6.7) and rebound (3.5) averages up to respectable levels. He has found a niche as the sixth man.
“He has had an impact in a lot of games,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said of Edwards. “They have kind of the big three in Marcus and Nino (Williams) and (Thomas) Gipson and then he is their fourth leading scorer. He gets out in transition and runs very well. He makes some threes, but the impact he makes is in transition.”
Edwards, a gifted athlete capable of jaw-dropping dunks, is trying to help in all areas.
“I think I am just playing my game and relaxing more,” Edwards said following a 63-53 victory against Oklahoma State on Saturday. “I am helping Marcus get a break. I am helping Wesley (Iwundu) get a break, being able to come in and produce.”
K-State coach Bruce Weber is not surprised that Edwards has started to figure things out. Nor is he surprised that it took Edwards two months to get going.
Sure, Edwards, a Maine transfer, averaged 15.8 points during his time with the Black Bears and he led the America East Conference in scoring as a sophomore, but that success came against inferior defenders. And much of his success in K-State practices, while he sat out a year due to NCAA transfer rules, felt like a long-drive champion at the driving range. Things change when the real competition begins and every mistake counts.
“When you transfer like that, it is a big jump,” Weber said. “The adjustments he had to make, it took some time. Last year on the scout squad, he dominated. But there was no fear. You shoot a bad shot, it doesn’t matter. Now you have to worry about shot selection and guarding people, which he really never did. If he can get eight to 12 points and four to six rebounds, it really supplements and complements what Wesley brings us. That gives us a nice three-headed monster there with Marcus.”
Edwards has made the biggest difference doing small things. Early on this season, he only seemed interested in dunking, finishing alley-oops and shooting threes. Since the start of Big 12 play, he has found success on the offensive glass, tipping in misses, finding teammates with passes and running the floor. That team-first mentality has resulted in more open looks for himself, which he is beginning to convert into points.
Weber may ask Edwards to play more minutes than usual against guard-heavy West Virginia, which loves to pressure opposing ball-handlers and create turnovers.
Edwards is up for the challenge, but doesn’t plan on doing anything special. He likes the way things are going for himself and for K-State too much to change his current approach.
“I just try to relax now and let the game come to me and not always focus on offense,” Edwards said. “I have been focusing more on defense lately, which has helped me on offense. That is just a key thing for me.”
No. 17 West Virginia at Kansas State
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Bramlage Coliseum, Manhattan
Records: WVU 16-3, 4-2 Big 12; KSU 12-8, 5-2
Radio: KQAM, 1480-AM; KWLS, 107.9-FM
No. 17 West Virginia at Kansas State
Daxter Miles Jr.
West Virginia (16-3, 4-2): The Mountaineers are having their best season since joining the Big 12. They have won 16 of their first 19 games and are near the top of the Big 12 standings. Still, they have work to do before they truly become conference contenders. West Virginia lost its last road game by 27 against Texas. Its other two losses came at home against Iowa State and LSU. And it was fortunate to escape with victory against TCU in its last game. Staten continues to be the engine that makes this team go. The preseason Big 12 Player of the Year is one of the nation’s top point guards.
Kansas State (12-8, 5-2): The Wildcats have found their groove after a difficult start. They have now won five of their last six and are fighting for a potential spot in the NCAA Tournament. Williams has been a big reason why, averaging 20 points and seven rebounds in his past three games. He was recently named Big 12 Player of the Week for a second time. K-State has had success against West Virginia at home, winning by double-digits at Bramlage Coliseum in each of the past two years.
RPIs as of Friday: WVU 15, K-State 73.