Kansas State guard Kamau Stokes proved his value during an 82-72 victory over Oklahoma State on Wednesday at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
There was a time when some wondered if the Wildcats were better off without him. As strange as it seemed to deprive a shallow roster of a veteran guard, there were concerns his return from a broken left foot might throw off team chemistry.
Well, that theory can be put to rest. Not only is K-State a better team with Stokes in the rotation, it is a much better team with him contributing. That much is clear after he came off the bench to score 11 points, send out three assists and grab three rebounds in a convincing win that gave the Wildcats (18-8, 7-6 Big 12) sole possession of fourth place in the conference standings.
“I made shots,” Stokes said. “My teammates found me when I was open and I just had to make shots. I definitely know I can build off this. I mean, I can shoot the ball. When I am making shots, it looks good.”
While it’s true K-State played its best basketball of the season in January with Stokes sidelined and redshirt Cartier Diarra starting at point guard, it’s obvious the Wildcats need both of them.
The current setup seems ideal. Diarra is healthier, bigger and a more dangerous slasher. The offense flows well with him in the starting lineup. But Stokes is a better shooter and more experienced facilitator. When Stokes plays well, K-State’s lineups don’t miss a beat without Barry Brown or Diarra.
In Stokes, the Wildcats have finally found a dependable reserve.
“He gives us some leadership, some experience off the bench,” Brown said. “He has been here for a few years now. Having him come off the bench and still take a leadership role out there on the court is big time.”
Stokes led K-State’s bench to 24 points against Oklahoma State. That might not seem impressive, but coach Bruce Weber nearly did a spit take when he saw it on the stat sheet.
The Wildcats hadn’t gotten that many points from their bench since early December when they scored 30 against South Carolina-Upstate. In Big 12 games, they hadn’t topped 13 bench points in a single game. Stokes nearly had that many by himself.
“Our bench was just huge and that has definitely not been a strength of ours,” Weber said. “You have Kamau coming off the bench, obviously that helps.”
Stokes can’t take all the credit for K-State’s bench resurgence. Makol Mawien exited early with foul trouble and Levi Stockard played his best game in relief, scoring a career-high eight points and grabbing five rebounds. Amaad Wainright also made a nice driving layup and hit a three.
All season, Weber has craved balance on offense. He finally got it on Wednesday.
He pointed to Texas Tech forward Tommy Hamilton for motivation. During a lopsided win over Kansas State on Saturday, he came off the bench to hit four three-pointers. The Wildcats had no answers for him.
Who was going to make that type of impact in this game?
The answer: Stokes.
“Everybody just played well,” Stokes said. “It’s that simple, especially off the bench. We talk a lot about our bench play. Today, everyone who came off the bench gave us a spark.”
K-State is one of four Big 12 teams with a winning conference record, and it has the opportunity to build tangible momentum with home games against Iowa State and Texas up next.
Take advantage, and the Wildcats can clinch a favorable seed at the conference tournament and solidify an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament.
Sound familiar? It should. They have been here before.
As meaningful as this victory was, and it was big considering Oklahoma State had recently defeated Kansas and West Virginia on the road, it won’t mean much if K-State can’t back it up at Bramlage Coliseum.
That hasn’t happened lately. K-State lost its last two home games by ugly scores to Texas Tech and Kansas. The Wildcats have actually been better on the road (4-3) in Big 12 games than at home (3-3). That needs to change.
“Every game from here on out is a big game for us,” Stokes said. “We know what we have to do.”
Weber was already emphasizing the Iowa State game before boarding the flight home. He understands K-State hasn’t won at home since Jan. 27 against Georgia.
His message: “You have got a great opportunity there, but do not take it for granted. You have got to come to play. They will come to play. They have not backed down to anybody.
The Wildcats have worn their throwback lavender jerseys twice this season, and they have responded by winning both games.
That fact wasn’t lost on K-State players following Wednesday’s victory.
“I have always been a big fan of this jersey and the shorts and the shoes,” Brown said. “It’s good for our alumni. I guess people are now calling them the lucky lavenders. Maybe there is something about them.”
Do uniforms affect games? Probably not, but superstition is a big part of sports.
Weber intended to wait until the Big 12 tournament to wear the lavender uniforms a second time, but director of basketball operations Drew Speraw suggested Valentine’s Day. The strategy worked.
“The guys liked it,” Weber said. “Maybe it juiced them up a little bit.”
K-State will wear black against Iowa State on Saturday, but the lavenders will be back. They have to be after their hot start.
“I like them. I think they look good. Now it gives us a different look,” Weber said. “It shouldn’t replace what we wear, but now that we are 2-0 I’m sure they might want to wear them again.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett