March 13, 2014
By Kelly McHugh
With the regular season coming to an end last Saturday, K-State men's basketball now faces its final stretch of the 2013-14 season: tournament play.
The fifth-seeded Wildcats kick off the Phillips 66 Big 12 Championship today with a game against No. 4-seed Iowa State at 11:30 a.m., in Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.
A much-anticipated matchup, the Wildcats and the Cyclones split their two-game series during the regular season with each team winning on their home court. Now, with the teams playing at a neutral site, fans will have the opportunity to hang on and see just who can muster out a win.
"Both games against Iowa State were hard fought games, down to the wire," head coach Bruce Weber said. "If history repeats itself, it probably could be that kind of game, but you never know once you get into the tournament. I just want our guys to play hard. I want them to compete; that's all I care about. Whatever happens, happens."
A "bar fight" was the common response among the Wildcat players when asked to describe its past two matchups against Iowa State. Two intense games that came down to the final stretch, it took an entire team effort for a full 40 minutes to overcome the Cyclones, 80-73, in Bramlage Coliseum on March 1.
"The biggest separator in those two games was who made the last run in the end of the game," said senior guard Will Spradling. "(In Manhattan) it was us, and then at their place, they made a run at the end of the game. So whoever gets that last run will probably pull it out, but we have to be prepared and be ready to play. We know the style of play they want to play and we know how tough the game is going to be. We just got to go out there and finish it again."
The last time the two teams met, five Wildcats scored in the double digits while the K-State bench scored nearly half the points as it outscored the Cyclone bench, 38-3.
While having the entire squad step up to finish games has been an important factor for K-State this season, the Cyclone trio of key players, rightfully dubbed the "Big Three" - Big 12 Player of the Year Melvin Ejim, Big 12 Newcomer of the Year DeAndre Kane and All-Big 12 Third Team performer Georges Niang - have proven to be a force to be reckoned with on the court.
While Ejim and Kane accounted for almost 75 percent of the Cyclones' 73 points in Manhattan by scoring 30 and 24 points, respectively, the K-State defense was able to shut down Niang.
"Obviously if Ejim gets 30 (points) and 16 (rebounds), Kane gets twenty-something (points) and Niang gets another high number, then we're in trouble," explained Weber. "They're good. They're going to get their points. We just have to make sure we don't let somebody else go totally crazy and step up and have a career high."
Along with a solid performance from the "Big Three" when K-State lost, 81-75, to the Cyclones in Ames, Iowa, on Jan. 25, Cyclone guard Matt Thomas put away a career-high 14 points. Weber knows in order to contain the Big 12's No. 1 scoring offense, his defense will have bunker down and play smart.
With an offense containing four players that are scoring in the double digits, it's no doubt the Cyclones are an exciting team to watch, and for K-State junior Thomas Gipson, he gets a thrill out of matching up with dynamic teams such as Iowa State.
"I'm looking forward to playing them," Gipson said. "They're an exciting team to play. They're an unorthodox team as far as Niang and their dribble drive. They're exciting and I'm looking forward to it."
But it's not just K-State who is excited for the matchup - the Cyclones know it's going to be a good game too.
"Well it's going to be a great game, I'm confident of that," Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg said earlier this week. "They're an excellent team. I think the world of Bruce Weber and he's done a great job with that group. I'm looking forward to the matchup, and we're looking forward to the opportunity."
FOSTER EARNS ALL-BIG 12 HONORS
K-State freshman Marcus Foster continues to exceed expectations and was named to the 2014 All-Big 12 Second Team and All-Newcomer Team earlier this week.
"He's had a great year for a freshman," said Weber. "To make second team, I mean, I didn't vote for him, it's other people voting for him, so he should be proud of what he's done. I hope he's stayed pretty humble and he knows he's got ways to go as a player to get better. I said this from the beginning, and I think the best thing about him is he's probably worked as hard as anybody on our team, and that's why he's had the success he's had."
It's the first time in Wildcat history that a freshman guard earned the honor, and Foster joins former K-State forward Michael Beasley (2007-08) as the only true freshman to garner All-Big 12 honors. Foster joined Kansas freshmen Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins (both named to the All-Big 12 First Team) as the leagues' only freshmen chosen to All-Big 12 teams.
"He's been great," Spradling said about his freshman teammate. "The way he's improved through the year is tremendous. He's been working at it. In the beginning of the year he was pretty much just a scorer, but now he's rebounding, had a game with 10 assists - he's doing everything now."
Foster is leading K-State in scoring by averaging 15.4 points per game while he also averages 3.3 rebounds and has 75 total assists - third best on his team behind Spradling and Shane Southwell.
The talented freshman from Wichita Falls, Texas, has never played in Sprint Center, he's never played in a Big 12 Championship and the NCAA Tournament was always something he'd just dreamed about. So now, going in to his first time playing in the collegiate postseason, Foster can't help but grin.
"It's very exciting," he laughed. "It's unreal to me because last year I was sitting on my couch watching Kansas State play in the conference tournament and drawing out brackets and all of that. It's unreal to me that I'm playing in it now."
Though he may have never played in a conference championship tournament before, there's no doubt Foster feels the weight of K-State's upcoming schedule. The intensity of the Big 12 Conference is on the rise, and there's no backing down now.
"We might only have two guaranteed games left with the conference tournament and the NCAA Tournament, so I feel the intensity is going to really rise," Foster said. "You've got teams like Oklahoma State and Baylor who are also fighting for their positions in the NCAA Tournament. The intensity is really rising.
"I just have to stay positive, stay relaxed. You definitely have to be strong mentally to get through this because you're tired, but you have to be strong and fight through the pain - but I'll be refueled for Thursday. With that atmosphere, you've got to be refueled and you've got to be feeling it."