Few teams have benefited from the use of a small lineup more than Kansas State this basketball season. But for all the positives a four-guard look has brought the Wildcats, it seemed to hold them back during a 73-67 loss to Iowa State on Saturday at Hilton Coliseum.
The No. 11 Wildcats struggled to come up with rebounds and had no answer for Will Clyburn. The 6-foot-7 Cyclones senior continually muscled past K-State defenders while scoring 24 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.
A perfect example of his dominance came in the final moments, with the Cyclones clinging to a 65-62 lead. Iowa State was working the ball around the perimeter, trying to find a high-percentage shot for a two-possession advantage. Melvin Ejim ended up missing a three, but when the ball clanged off the rim Clyburn was there to grab it. Sixteen seconds later, Georges Niang made a three and Iowa State was on top 68-62 with 2:35 remaining.
The Wildcats didn’t get closer than three the rest of the way.
“The thing that made us good for most of the season is that we guarded and we out-toughed, out-played people,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “We have been getting beat on the offensive glass.”
Iowa State out-rebounded K-State 35-28, but the biggest difference indeed came on the offensive end, where the Cyclones grabbed 11 boards to the Wildcats’ five. That led to 18 second-chance points for Iowa State.
Much of that had to do with Weber going smaller than usual by playing freshman D.J. Johnson for 20 minutes, but who could blame him for trying something new? K-State’s other big men came up empty.
Jordan Henriquez, a 6-foot-11 forward, had two rebounds and Thomas Gipson, the Wildcats’ starting forward, didn’t grab any.
Even with Will Spradling making four three-pointers and scoring 15 points, Rodney McGruder scoring 13, Shane Southwell finishing with 11 and K-State shooting 50.9 percent, that was too much to overcome.
“We are a rebounding team,” Clyburn said. “We were one of the top rebounding teams in the country. That is just something that we do.”
Melvin Ejim also helped Iowa State pull away in a close game with six points and 10 rebounds while six Cyclones scored six or more points.
“Both of us were coming off disappointing losses,” Weber said. “It’s a maturity game. It’s a determination game. Who is more determined? I think they made more determined plays when it counted.… We could never get enough momentum to really change the game. They cause problems for you.”
The biggest problem was Clyburn, but K-State (15-4, 4-2 Big 12) also had to worry about Iowa State’s perimeter shooters. The Cyclones (14-5, 4-2) are one of the nation’s top three-point shooting teams, and they made 11 of 22 on Saturday.
All those outside shots left K-State’s lineup spread out and focused in different areas.
“He is just a good player,” Weber said of Clyburn. “He is active, he plays point, he plays three, he plays four and gets you in all kinds of different binds. When they hit threes, they spread your defense. That allows him to work. We didn’t do a good job of containing him or Georges.”
Still, K-State was in position to end Iowa State’s 17-game home-court winning streak until the closing moments. It led 27-26 at halftime, and 56-55 with 7:31 remaining, but trailed from there. It simply couldn’t stop Niang, Clyburn and Korie Lucious in the clutch.
Four days after losing another close game to Kansas, the Wildcats were dealing with their first losing streak under Weber.
“We just didn’t make that play,” Spradling said. “(With) KU, there were times we needed to make stops at the end of the game and we just didn’t make that stop. That happened today, too, when we didn’t get those rebounds we needed.”
The Cyclones were coming off an embarrassing loss to Texas Tech, but handled that adversity better in a friendly environment.
“That is a hard team to defend,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I am very proud.”
The loss hit Southwell hard. Coaches turned to him to limit Iowa State forwards inside, and he was unable to do so.
“I’m used to it now, there are no excuses. I had four rebounds, my man had 10,” he said. “There are no excuses for that. It’s frustrating, but we just have to come back and practice harder. We will be fine, we are going to compete at a higher level.”
The Wildcats will need to. Though losing to Kansas and Iowa State is nothing to be ashamed of, they can’t allow this slide to continue if they hope to stay in the mix for a Big 12 championship. At this time last week, the Wildcats were riding high on an eight-game winning streak.
Now they face an important game against struggling Texas on Wednesday at Bramlage Coliseum.
Until then, K-State’s small lineup will try to get back to the point where it can deliver – on the inside and out.
“We made the change to go with a smaller lineup. It seems like it has hurt us a little there,” Weber said. “I would like these guys to rebound and be better offensively.… We gave ourselves a chance, we just didn’t get the stops and the loose balls and the rebounds when it counted.”