Disappointed as they were to leave Kansas City without a Big 12 Tournament championship, the Kansas State Wildcats couldn’t help but feel like they had a productive week following a 63-59 loss to Iowa State on Friday at Sprint Center.
Sure, it would have been better had they made some open threes late against the Cyclones and Marial Shayok would have missed some of his. This wasn’t a moral victory. But it wasn’t exactly a deflating loss, either.
The main reason why: Cartier Diarra.
With Dean Wade missing from action this week because of an injured right foot and questionable for the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats needed someone to step up and provide a spark. No one knew if Diarra could do that given that he missed the final eight games of the regular season because of a broken finger on his shooting hand.
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But no one is doubting him now. The sophomore guard had two strong games at the Big 12 Tournament, and he was arguably K-State’s best player on Friday. He finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and two assists while playing 34 minutes.
The Wildcats are at their best when he’s in the lineup, and he reminded everyone of that.
“The best thing was that Cartier got to play,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “This is his first live competition since he hurt his hand. You can see how talented he is. To get him in there really helped us. To get a feel with different guys really helped us. We hope Dean is back next week, but who knows? We will just have to see. If not we (won in the NCAA Tournament without him) last year.”
K-State started the same lineup against Iowa State that it did a year ago in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats went small with Diarra joining Kamau Stokes, Barry Brown, Xavier Sneed and Makol Mawien.
Diarra scored eight quick points and helped the Wildcats build a 21-14 lead. Then he hit some three-pointers as K-State surged ahead 55-50 with 2:47 remaining.
“He was real positive,” K-State sophomore Mike McGuirl said. “It’s tough coming back from an injury, getting back into the rhythm of a game, and he has done a great job with it and he has really worked hard to come back and be ready right away. That’s great, because we are going to need him in the NCAA Tournament.”
It was hard for Diarra to grade his play following the loss. He missed two “naked open” three-pointers late that could have made a huge difference, while Iowa State made big shots to win.
That’s what he was focused on.
“After I was cleared to go back and play I just felt a little more free,” Diarra said. “I have been working on my game getting my shot back and it felt good today. It just didn’t fall when I needed it to fall.”
Diarra will hope for more in the NCAA Tournament, but there is reason to think he can reach a higher level after the way he played this week.
“It’s just amazing his natural gifts, what he can do,” Weber said. “Obviously, he gave us a great boost tonight. The defense and the little stuff, if you don’t play and you don’t practice that shows. Hopefully this experience and getting a little bit of rest next week will help him even more.”
Time to rest
Every team that loses in its conference tournament tries to spin that defeat into a positive by saying it gives them extra time to rest before the start of the NCAA Tournament. But that genuinely means a lot to the Wildcats.
Wade isn’t the only dinged up K-State basketball player.
Xavier Sneed was visibly limping at times during the second half, and Weber says he could use two weeks of rest to recover from a wide assortment of minor issues. Kamau Stokes has been playing through a toe injury and migraines. And Barry Brown seems tired after guiding the Wildcats to a regular-season Big 12 championship.
“More than anybody, Barry (needs rest) just getting his legs back underneath him,” Weber said. “I don’t want to say he has struggled, but he had an unbelievable run. He hasn’t shot it as well. Maybe he over did it.”
Brown scored 13 points on 14 shots against Iowa State.
One more thing: Weber thinks K-State plays its best coming off a loss.
“We are better when we have a fear factor,” Weber said. “When our guys fear and they lose, they seem to have a better determination. So maybe, in the long run, this will help us.”
K-State is a lock for the NCAA Tournament at 25-8. The Wildcats have probably done enough to earn a No. 4 seed in the Big Dance. Where they play and what region they are sent to remains hard to project, but they should enter the event with their best seed since 2013.
For now, they aren’t worried about any of that. They just want to watch the selection show on Sunday are start focusing on their first-round opponent.
“We had a chance here and we didn’t finish,” Diarra said, “but there is more basketball to play, if we make it happen.”