Over the next few weeks, I'll be taking an in-depth look at every school in the Big 12. I'll focus on the past (i.e. last season's strengths and weaknesses), the changes (i.e. incoming freshmen, departing seniors, new coaches), and the future.
Kansas State should be favorites to win the Big 12 title for the first time since 1977. They're legitimate Final Four contenders--which would mark their first appearance since 1964. This also could be the most epic years in the Kansas State - Kansas rivalry since 1988. Both teams are currently in the top ten, and experts have picked both teams to make the Final Four (albeit separately). Could this be a repeat of 1988 when Kansas State won in the Big 8 conference tourney before losing to the Jayhawks in the Elite Eight (and Kansas went on to win the title)? I think so. Frankly, I think the Wildcats should have made the Final Four last year. If you watched the Elite Eight game against Butler, it was clear Kansas State just didn't have the legs after the double overtime victory over Xavier less than two days earlier. I'm not sure they would have beaten Butler, but I think it would've been much closer (and certainly the Wildcats could have tried to play the game at the breakneck pace they love).
Now this isn't to say the Wildcats are flawless. Losing to Iowa State at home is never a good sign. They also couldn't beat Kansas (which I expect to change this season). If Frank Martin wants his first Big 12 title he's going to have to find the keys to winning in Lawrence.
Kansas State lost three starters from last year's squad. Most importantly, they lost Jacob Pullen's backcourt mate Denis Clemente, who loved to push the ball and shoot with without reservation. Clemente wasn't quite the sharpshooter (only hitting 34% from deep), but he was the second leading scorer (and lead the team in assists). More importantly, I have trouble separating Clemente from last year's team. He sort of embodied the team spirit: an effective gunner who runs relentlessly and (somehow) manages not to turn the ball over excessively. The Wildcats also lost Dominique Sutton (who transferred to North Carolina Central to be closer to his family) and Luis Colon. Sutton was an solid presence on the wing who will certainly be missed, but it's tough to blame him for wanting to be closer to his two young daughters.
Fear the beard. Kansas State's national contention rests on the shoulders of preseason All-American Jacob Pullen. Pullen should be one of--if not the--top guards in college basketball. He's a dynamic scorer everywhere on his side of half court. He might not be an NBA-level finisher, but Pullen has the accuracy and confidence to torch teams from the outside. Without Clemente his scoring should only improve from last year's 19.3 points a game. The question is how he will handle being the main facilitator.
More after the jump.
The good news for Pullen is he has plenty of options. Replacing Clemente (probably) will be Rodney McGruder, who averaged a smooth 42% from beyond the arc last season. He also lead the Wildcats in scoring in their exhibition win over Washburn with 18 points (and going an outrageous 5-5 from three). I don't think MacGruder will put up those numbers this whole season, but if teams try to double team Pullen, I wouldn't be surprised if he did.
Down low Pullen will have his choice between Curtis Kelly (11.5 PPG, 6.2 RPG, and 2.0 BPG last year), Jamar Samuels (11.0 PPG and 4.9 RPG last year), Wally Judge, and Freddy Asprilla. Asprilla is a transfer from Florida International, who won Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year after averaging 14 points and 9.3 rebounds a game. Given the Big 12 is nothing like the Sun Belt** so production is bound to go down. But he should still be an important player in Martin's rotation up front.
**Author's Note: although if the name wasn't taken I would definitely have suggested that the Big 12 seriously consider "Sun Belt" after Nebraska and Colorado depart.
I think Kansas State's deep and athletic frontcourt are why they are poised for a great year this year. I'm not sure many teams have guys who will be able to run with them a full forty minutes. I'm also expecting two of the bunch (right now I'm leaning toward Kelly and Judge) to have breakout seasons. I think Judge especially has nearly limitless potential thanks to his outstanding athleticism, and could really surprise some people this year (assuming he doesn't foul out).
The second key for a great season is continuing to get to the line. Kansas State led the nation in free throw attempts by a country mile last season with 1,098. Frank Martin's aggressive style should put them up there again this season, and going to the charity stripe should mean lots of free points. But that also may be the Wildcats' kryptonite, if exhibition games mean anything. In their match against Newman University, Kansas State went a smooth 21-40 from the line (I'm not even sure that merits a gentleman's C). Going to the line a lot doesn't mean anything if you can't capitalize. As coach Frank Martin said after the game, "shooting 50-percent from the line ain't getting it done." Martin isn't one to mince words, and his team could really struggle (they have some tough nonconference games ahead) if they can't make foul shots. Against Washburn they shot better, making 26 of 37 (~70%).
As for their schedule, the Wildcats have a brutal nonconference slate. Tuesday they play Virginia Tech (an experienced team who should be near the top of the ACC) at home. Then in the O'Reilly Auto Parts CBE Classic (which should count as "home" games as they take place in Kansas City), they face Gonzaga, and could face Duke (or Marquette) in the finals. In the Metro PCS Orange Bowl Classic, they take on the SEC-favorite Florida Gators in Florida followed by UNLV (a Mountain West contender that should be on the border of the top 25). All that before Christmas. I think all the games are winnable, but all are equally losable. K-State needs to make sure not to let a couple of early losses get them down (which can happen to relatively inexperienced teams), or it could be a long road before conference play.
Around the Big 12, Kansas State plays Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, Iowa State, and Nebraska twice. Kansas and Missouri should be excellent games that have major bearing on the Big 12 regular season champion; Colorado shouldn't be slept on, but I don't see anyway they can stop K-State's front line. Another great game will be in Manhattan against Baylor. I'm really excited to see how the Bears stack up (with Quincy Acy and Perry Jones) against Frank Martin's squad this season. Right now I'll give K-State a slight edge (thanks to depth), but that could easily change. The Wildcats also have to play Texas in Austin (where Jordan Hamilton has looked superb through two games). They definitely won't make it through conference play unscathed, but I expect Frank Martin and Jacob Pullen to separate themselves from the pack.
Predicted conference record: 12-4
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