KANSAS CITY, Mo. — All season long, opposing teams, fans and media have pondered the question: How do the Kansas State Wildcats do it?
How does this seeming modestly-talented team consistently win?
But now, with the NCAA tournament around the corner and the Wildcats rolling along with a 27-6 record, the better question might be: How do you beat these guys?
Kansas State found another methodical way to win Friday night in the semifinals of the Big 12 tourney, scratching and clawing and finally wearing down the gifted Oklahoma State Cowboys, 68-57, at Sprint Center.
To be fair, Oklahoma State and its superstar, Marcus Smart, had spent quite a bit of energy Thursday in getting past pesky Baylor, 74-72. And the Cowboys’ lack of energy showed against Kansas State — no team wants to face the Wildcats winded.
“Yeah, I thought they looked a little tired,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. “Actually, our coaches watched their game (Thursday) against Baylor, and we thought they looked tired in the second half of that game. So we thought it might show up in our game.”
The Wildcats took advantage with two significant spurts; a 17-8 run at the end of the first half to grab a five-point halftime lead, and a 9-2 run to open the second half that put K-State up by 12.
“That’s when I noticed it,” K-State guard Angel Rodriguez said of Oklahoma State’s fatigue. “A little bit before the half and right after. They started taking a few bad shots and we got into transition, and we built a lead.
“And that’s kind of the beauty of us. We keep coming at you. We’re pretty deep, so if one or two of us get tired, we got other guys coming in and we keep coming.”
Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford tried to keep up, substituting often, especially with Smart.
“When (Ford) kept pulling Smart in and out of the lineup,” Weber said, “that was a pretty good sign they (were tired).”
Ford wouldn’t use fatigue as an excuse, however.
“I just don’t know if that was it,” Ford said. “I won’t make excuses. They were more physical than us — that’s for sure. Look, K-State is just a good basketball team. Very good. And they were better than us tonight.”
And now comes K-State’s biggest challenge of all — playing Kansas in Saturday night’s Big 12 tourney final.
“It’s another great opportunity for us,” Weber said. “We’re co-champions of the Big 12 and now we get to face the team we tied with. You can’t ask for more than that.”
But meetings with Kansas too often remind Wildcats fans of their team’s limitations. Under Bill Self, Kansas is 20-3 against the Wildcats, including another clean sweep this year in Weber’s first year at K-State.
KU now has won 46 of the last 49 meetings with K-State. The Wildcats aren’t exactly the Washington Generals against KU, but the comparisons are growing similar.
“We can’t think about the past,” Rodriguez said.
Added K-State guard Rodney McGruder, “It’s Kansas. You just have to get ready and see what happens.”
Weber, naturally, is hoping his Wildcats can slap the same type of smothering defense against Kansas as they did against Oklahoma State.
The Cowboys didn’t score a point until almost six minutes evaporated in the first half. And they made just nine of 28 shots in the first 20 minutes, a woeful 32 percent.
It only got worse for the Cowboys, who went nine for 31 in the second half.
“When you play Kansas State, like I said, you have to match their physical nature,” Ford said. “They will contest every shot and jump the passing lanes, force you to do things you shouldn’t be doing. It’s a battle of wills.”
K-State had the willpower Friday, thanks in no small part to Rodriguez and McGruder, the usual suspects who ignite the Wildcats’ limited offense.
McGruder, held to seven points in the first half, scored K-State’s first nine points after the break on his way to a game-high 25.
“We got some turnovers and that opened things up for me,” McGruder said, shrugging his shoulders.
Rodriguez, who had just six in the first half, added 17 points for the game, and was his usual nuisance to opponents by coming up with three steals, four assists and six rebounds.
“The things he can do are pretty incredible,” McGruder said. “He can be pretty magic with the ball in his hands.”
Rodriguez and his teammates will have to be Saturday night if they want to leave Kansas City with the trophy.
“From the minute the game tipped off tonight, K-State brought their hard hats with them,” Ford said. “They’re good and they’re going to win more games.”