Bruce Weber wanted to make a change, several of them actually.
As the Kansas State basketball coach watched and analyzed the way his team played at the conclusion of last season, he decided the Wildcats needed to strengthen their interior defense and improve their half-court offense. So he hit the road for ideas.
He traveled to San Antonio to study the Spurs. He flew to Atlanta to get an up-close look at the Hawks. He returned to Manhattan filled with NBA knowledge he hoped would help K-State this season.
The trips ended with Weber deciding to make some major schematic adjustments.
On offense, the motion system he grew up teaching would take a back seat to a new approach that allows K-State’s versatile lineup to swing the ball, open up space and score in transition.
On defense, the spread-out alignments that helped K-State lead the Big 12 in three-point percentage defense would shift to a more compacted look that emphasized steals on the perimeter and double teams inside.
As March approaches, what does he think of the changes?
“It’s not by my desire, it’s more the guys,” Weber said about moving away from a motion offense. “I went to watch some of the Spurs’ stuff, went down to the Hawks and found some wrinkles we felt really good about early. We just haven’t had the success of late.”
And on the other side of the floor?
“We were so bad against the two and we were one of the best in the country against three,” Weber said. “We had to figure that out and change a little bit of our schemes, how we help. We are better with steals, we are in better position, but we haven’t gotten to the shooters like we are supposed to.
“We have got to do a better job closing out and getting to the shooters. That is a difference-maker. If somebody goes 50 percent from three and we go 33 percent, that’s a big difference.”
As March approaches, it’s perhaps best to describe the results of those changes as mixed.
K-State has improved on offense. The Wildcats are averaging 74.3 points, up from 70.7 last season, and they are making 47.3 percent of their shots. Their biggest improvement has come from three-point range, where they are hitting 37.7 percent from three a year after making 30 percent.
They are also undoubtedly better in transition, and that success has given guards Kamau Stokes, Barry Brown and Wesley Iwundu ways to attack the basket.
But they occasionally get bogged down in half-court sets. That held them back in their most recent loss to Kansas, in which they began the game hoping to work the ball inside to D.J. Johnson and ended up using him as a screener on the perimeter.
The Jayhawks left the pick-and-roll open, but the Wildcats rarely executed it propler. Weber said the team needed show more patience.
“People fight for passes and our movement hasn’t been as good and we end up just doing a lot of ball screens,” Weber said. “I don’t mind doing that if we pass out of the ball screens. When you watch the Spurs and even the Warriors they get movement.
“If you have guys like Frank Mason, to heck with it. Spread people out, space them and give him the ball. He makes the decision. He is shooting 58 (percent) from three. You don’t have to do crazy things, but in our case, if we can get movement it helps our guys and covers up some of our weaknesses.”
K-State players understand what needs to be done.
“We get stagnant a lot,” Stokes said. “By us moving we will be able to get the defense moving and create easy opportunities for us to score.”
The Wildcats will get their next opportunity against West Virginia, a team they defeated at Bramlage Coliseum last month.
This game may not feature as many half-court sets as usual, given West Virginia uses full-court pressure. K-State should get plenty of opportunities to score in transition. But when they find themselves trying to grind out offense in front of a sellout road crowd, they will need to execute.
The same can be said on defense. West Virginia likes to attack the basket and send passes out to shooters when defenses move their focus inside, exactly K-State’s weakness.
K-State is allowing teams 65.8 points a year after surrendering 68.2, but opponents are lighting it up front three-point range. Last year, the Wildcats allowed teams to make 31 percent of their three-pointers. This year, that number has climbed to 39.1 and 45.6 in conference play, by far the worst in the Big 12.
“Guards have got to contain their man better, so we don’t have to help,” Brown said. “When teams penetrate and kick to (shooters) for a wide-open three, we have to keep our man in front of us.”
They are simple challenges the Wildcats have been working on all season. How quickly they master them may decide how their season ends.
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett
Kansas State at No. 13 West Virginia
- When: 11 a.m. Saturday
- Where: WVU Coliseum, Morgantown, W.Va.
- Records: KSU 16-8, 5-6 Big 12; WVU 19-5, 7-4
- Radio: 1480-AM, 102.5-FM, 107.9-FM
- TV: ESPN
Kansas State (16-8, 5-6): It’s been a fascinating few weeks for the Wildcats. Since beating West Virginia at home on Jan. 21, they lost consecutive games to Iowa State, Tennessee and TCU. Then they upset Baylor on the road and lost a close home game to Kansas. It’s hard to predict what will come next. Wade has picked up his play of late, scoring 12 points against Baylor and then 20 against Kansas. Brown has slumped during that same time, scoring a total of 17 points in his past three games. All five starters reached double figures in K-State’s 79-75 victory against West Virginia.
West Virginia (19-5, 7-4): The Mountaineers have been far from invincible at home, dropping games to unranked Oklahoma and Oklahoma State at WVU Coliseum. But they also defeated Baylor and Kansas by double digits at home. So it’s hard to know what to expect. West Virginia is coming off a bounce-back victory at Oklahoma. They have won four of their past five since falling to K-State. The Mountaineers struggled with turnovers against the Wildcats, losing the ball 23 times.
RPIs as of Friday: K-State 41, WVU 32.