Kansas State was far from a perfect basketball team last season, but it wasn’t far away from reaching the NCAA Tournament.
That’s what makes the Wildcats such a surprising ninth-place choice in the preseason Big 12 poll.
They return the bulk of their scoring from a team that finished eighth in the league standings last season and add a talented group of freshmen. So why do the Big 12 coaches think this team will be worse?
I’m not sure. The more I study this roster the more I think K-State coach Bruce Weber has a group capable of winning 20 games and returning to the NCAA Tournament after missing the postseason the past two years. I would have picked the Wildcats seventh, but won’t be surprised if they finish in the league’s top half.
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Yes, the conference chewed up K-State (17-16, 5-13 Big 12) last season, but the Wildcats are now older while much of the league has gotten younger. That could make a major difference when in close games, which mostly eluded K-State a year ago.
The Wildcats lost to West Virginia and Baylor in double overtime, they lost two games to Texas and another to Oklahoma State on the final possession, then also blew a late lead against North Carolina.
Much was made about K-State’s lack of conference success, but the Wildcats were a few good bounces away from a .500 league record. If half those games go the other way, K-State finishes with 20 wins and probably reaches the NCAA Tournament.
Sports don’t work that way, of course, and there is always a chance this team will remain feeble in close games, but I doubt it.
Losing point guard Kamau Stokes midway through the season crippled K-State’s backcourt last season. Losing forward Isaiah Maurice before the season for academic reasons cost the team a versatile scorer. Injuries made it impossible to use Dante Williams, the team’s best shot-blocker.
All three of those players appear healthy and ready to contribute this season. That will make a difference. So will the experience of Dean Wade and Barry Brown. They should improve as sophomores. If Wade can play with confidence, he could truly be a difference-maker.
Then you’ve got D.J. Johnson inside as a senior. He could be the best old-school post player in the Big 12 this season. His love for tough rebounds and difficult buckets is rarely seen anymore.
That’s the makings of a solid rotation, and we haven’t even mentioned Wesley Iwundu. He will be the X-factor. The Wildcats need a go-to scorer and leader, and they will turn to him to fill that role. If his improved jump shot is as good as advertised and he averages 15-plus points, people are going to look back at the preseason poll and wonder why this team was picked ninth.
No one is predicting a Sweet 16 run here, but a NCAA Tournament berth seems within reach.
K-State is setup for a boatload of nonconference wins (Maryland in the Barclays Center Classic, Colorado State in Denver and a trip to Tennessee are the only challenging games) and a solid homecourt advantage will help when Big 12 play begins.
Of course, K-State had high aspirations two years ago (remember Marcus Foster proclaiming the team had Final Four talent?) and fell flat on its face. A segment of fans have wanted Weber fired ever since. So you never know.
Still, this seems like the season Weber (79-54 in four seasons) gets things back on track. If not, it’s hard to see him returning for a sixth season.
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett