What more does Kansas State have to do to get people to care about them this season? It seems nothing about this Wildcats’ team screams elite. They are tied for first in a down Big 12, they hired a then-unpopular coach last March, they don’t score a bunch of points like Oklahoma State, and they don’t even have the best player in their league. Yet here they are, currently ranked in the top-10 of both polls.
Kansas State is a sleeper. With that said, everybody’s still sleeping on them. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)
This season didn’t get off to the start K-State would have liked. Yes, the Wildcats ran through their first few games with ease but star Rodney McGruder initially struggled to find his place in Bruce Weber’s motion offense. In the first five games, McGruder averaged just 10 PPG while shooting 39 percent from the field and 13 percent from behind the arc. He didn’t have his best game until the Wildcats played USC Upstate on December 2. Only then did McGruder begin to find his place: 22 points on 8-of-16 shooting to go along with seven rebounds. Since then, the talented senior has had some big games (28 points vs Oklahoma State), but he doesn’t need to carry the offensive load (seven points in a win at Oklahoma) to ensure a Wildcat victory.
Kansas State’s rise also coincides with the coming of age of point guard Angel Rodriguez. Not only has he cut down on turnovers and become one of the more underrated passers in college basketball, he is also becoming a viable second offensive option, averaging 11 points per contest. Another reason for their rise could be Weber’s decision to bring Thomas Gipson off the bench. Gipson averaged 6.8 PPG in the first 19 games of the season as a starter; coming in as a sub, Gipson has averaged 10.3 PPG in the last 11 games.
Everyone knew how relentless Frank Martin was with his teams defensively. Last year’s team that lost in the Third Round of the NCAAs gave up 64.1 points per game. That’s a nice, low number isn’t it? Going into last night’s game against TCU, Weber had this group giving up 62.7 points per game. To put that in perspective, K-State’s Elite Eight team in 2009-10 gave up a surprising 70.8 points per game. Is Weber doing Frank Martin better than Frank Martin? It sure looks that way.
None of this has surprised me and it shouldn’t have surprised anyone else either. With Jamar Samuels gone, the Wildcats had 10 scholarship players returning with a new head coach who had once led his team to a national championship game. Four of their five losses have come against teams currently ranked in the AP Top 10 — twice to Kansas (#4), as well as Michigan (#7) and Gonzaga (#1). They have wins over Florida and Oklahoma State but what separates them from other teams is that their best player doesn’t necessarily have to perform his best for them to win. Plus, in a season where the national title race is an open field, a veteran, defensive-oriented team like Kansas State’s chances of a Sweet Sixteen or more is likely to occur.
I tried to warn folks back in November but it hasn’t really resonated with America yet. That’s ok. I’m sure K-State prefers the life of being a sleeper anyway.