SE: Pieces in Place for K-State MBB Heading into Season

The goals are set and the pieces to reach them are in place. The path between the two, however, requires more, which is exactly what the K-State men’s basketball team is seeking. More production out of everyone. More attention to detail. More wins. More games. 

“Nothing’s going to happen on its own. We’re going to have to continue to work hard these next few weeks leading up to game day,” senior forward D.J. Johnson said at K-State’s media day on Monday. “That should determine how we do throughout the season. We worked hard all offseason and us having another year of experience for all the young guys is good for us. That should just put us up already, but it’s not going to happen on its own. We got to still put in the work.”

K-State’s primary goal is to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014. To get there, Johnson said there must be some sub-goals, such as a solid non-conference record or winning the team’s Play Hard Chart every game. 

“We have to do those little things that lead you to those big victories and getting to the NCAA Tournament,” he said, happy with what he’s seen from the team so far. “The younger guys came in ready to work and are really ambitious, just like Wes [Iwundu] and I. That makes it a lot easier. I know when game time comes around, we’ve done everything we can to prepare ourselves to get a win.”

K-State finished last season 17-16, including a 5-13 mark in the Big 12. The Wildcats lost four games by four or less points last year that K-State head coach Bruce Weber said boiled down to wasted possessions and inexperience. 

To remedy the former, K-State has strained its focus on improving its assist-to-turnover ratio, where it ranked eighth in the Big 12 last season.   

“Little things really make a difference. You saw the football game (against Texas Tech) Saturday. The team that makes the least mistakes in those close games usually wins the game,” Weber said. “Our biggest nemesis was taking care of the ball and having assists — giving ourselves a chance on possessions. That’s something we’ve harped on all summer.”

What K-State can build on is a stingy defense. 

The Wildcats allowed 68.2 points a game last year to rank fourth in the Big 12, only 1.5 points off of West Virginia at the top. K-State also brings in a missing defensive piece: rim protectors. 

Weber said three newcomers — 6-foot-10 Isaiah Maurice, 6-foot-10 James Love III and 7-foot Dante Williams — should collectively add a “backstop” to the Wildcats’ defense. Each of the freshmen posts, he added, has a way to go, but their presence is certainly a “positive step.” 

“Having those guys behind us, blocking shots, altering the play and protecting the rim,” said 6-foot-10 sophomore Dean Wade, “it’s going to be good for us.”

K-State returns five of its top six scorers from last season, led by Iwundu (11.9 PPG) and Wade (9.9). The Wildcats also bring back more than 70 percent of the minutes played in 2015-16. 

A bulk of the minutes graduated came from Justin Edwards, who spent the second-most amount of time (1,047) on the court last season. He also ranked first in points per game (12.7), rebounds per game (5.9) and steals (58).

“We’re going to miss him,” Weber said. “I don’t think it’s going to be one guy that’s going to replace him. I think it’s a group of people who are going to do it.”

That group starts with guards like sophomore Barry Brown and senior Carlbe Ervin II, both entering their second year at K-State. The Wildcats also brought in a pair of freshmen expected to make an immediate impact in Xavier Sneed, who Weber described as an “elite athlete,” and Brian Patrick, who brings 3-point shooting and a natural rebounding ability to the table. 

Then add in a healthy sophomore sharpshooter Kamau Stokes, who missed the last 12 games of his freshman season with a knee injury. Up to that point, he paced the team in 3-point makes and percentage while averaging 9.4 points a game. 

“When you take a little bit of this guy, a little bit of that guy and add it all up, hopefully you have what Justin gave us,” Weber said. “Our goal is to have a little more than what he gave us.”

The Wildcats open the 2016-17 schedule with exhibitions against Pittsburg State (October 28) and Washburn (November 4), before getting the regular season underway against Western Illinois in Bramlage Coliseum on November 11. 

The rest of K-State’s non-conference schedule is highlighted by a trip to Brooklyn, New York, for the Barclays Center Classic, where the Wildcats will open against Boston College. Their second game would be against Maryland or Richmond. 

K-State will play two more neutral site games, facing Washington State at the Sprint Center (December 10) in Kansas City and taking on Colorado State (December 17) at the Pepsi Center in Denver. 

“I think we have a nice mix of different teams, different styles, different venues,” said Weber, also bringing up the Wildcats’ final non-conference game at Tennessee on January 28, part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. “That gives you another opportunity for a road victory against a Power 5 team.”

With its five-game trip to Italy and Switzerland in August, K-State has a step up on most teams across the country in terms of preparation. The trip is yet another factor in the Wildcats’ belief that NCAA Tournament is well within reach this season. 

Still, they know it won’t happen without more work. 

“The older guys tell us day-in and day-out what it takes because they’ve been there before. We’re trying to get to where they’ve been already,” said Brown, a member of the All-Big 12 Newcomer Team after averaging 8.6 points and sinking a team-high 45 treys last season. “Every day, they’re telling us about how hard we’re working, the work that needs to be put in and the time outside of basketball on the court with film and stuff like that needs to be put in to get to that stage.”