NCAA BK

No. 25 K-State dives into start of Big 12 play

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(Eds: With AP Photos.)By DAVE SKRETTAAP Sports Writer

Kansas State coach Bruce Weber was asked whether he thinks his No. 25 Wildcats are ready for the start of Big 12 play, and his answer didn't exactly fill anybody with confidence.

''I don't think you know until you get there,'' he said.

Weber has already gone through an up-and-down nonconference slate, getting blown out by Michigan and Gonzaga before upsetting then-No. 8 Florida. So perhaps it's no surprise Weber doesn't know exactly what to expect from Saturday's game against No. 22 Oklahoma State.

''I thought we had made some progress up to the Florida game, and then you have some setbacks with traveling and the injuries,'' said Weber, whose team scattered for a holiday break and then had trouble returning to Manhattan because of lousy weather.

When players did return, some of them were nursing injuries.

Starting point guard Angel Rodriguez has been dealing with tendinitis, and backup guard Martavious Irving had his knee lock up in practice. Weber is hopeful both will be ready when the Wildcats (11-2) play the Cowboys (10-2), but he won't know until game time.

''We need them,'' Weber said. ''We can grind and fight without them, but if we are going to be really good, we need those guys. It would be nice to have both of them healthy.''

Especially considering the way Kansas State played without them.

The Wildcats plodded and muddled and shuffled through an uninspired win over Missouri-Kansas City in their first game after the holidays, and then needed a big second-half charge to put away South Dakota in their final tuneup for Big 12 play.

Neither time did they look anything like they did in beating the Gators.

''We learned a lot,'' said senior Rodney McGruder, who has had to shoulder an even greater scoring role without his two backcourt makes. ''It's just about how to get shots without guys creating for you and things like that. It's been a switch up in the offense.''

The offense has been the biggest hurdle for the Wildcats to overcome this season.

Under former coach Frank Martin, Kansas State ran half-court sets in which every player on the floor had a prescribed role. But when Weber was hired, the Wildcats began to implement his motion offense, a more free-flowing system that involves constant cutting and moving.

Predictably, the results early on were disastrous.

Passes were sent sailing out of bounds, three guys would bump into each other on the same spot on the floor, nobody was crashing the boards on offense - and Weber was left to stand on the sideline, raise his arms in frustration and ask, ''What was that?''

Slowly, the Wildcats started to get things figured out, and they looked like a fluid machine against Florida. But then injuries set in and the past couple weeks have been ugly at best, and now the Cowboys are visiting for an important Big 12 game.

''I'm ready. Our team is ready,'' said junior guard Shane Southwell. ''They're a really good team. I don't know if they are still in the Top 25 after their loss, but they played well and they honestly should have won that game. It is a big game and I am ready to play.''

Indeed, the Cowboys are still ranked after their 69-68 loss to No. 10 Gonzaga on Monday night. Their only other loss came against Virginia Tech early in the year, and North Carolina State and Tennessee are among their victims this season.

The game could play a big part in how the Big 12 shakes out.

While sixth-ranked Kansas remains the heavy favorite to win its ninth straight conference championship, the league is wide open after that. Kansas State and Oklahoma State are among a handful of teams vying for second place, with an eye on at least challenging the Jayhawks.

''They're a great team. We just have to come out and bring it,'' McGruder said. ''They're coming into our home and we have to protect our home court. I look forward to it.''

Tagged: Florida, Kansas State, Kansas

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