Wildcats keep on grinding — and winning

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Word association time. Ready?
 
Kansas State. Shoot.
 
Oklahoma State guard Phil Forte: “Obviously, when you think of K-State, you think of an aggressive, physical basketball team.”
 
Oklahoma State forward Michael Cobbins: “You’ve got to be careful with the ball around them. And you’ve just got to be mentally focused for both halves.”
 
Oklahoma State guard Markel Brown: “They (weren’t) picked high in this league. They tied for first. Man, that’s a great ballclub over there.”
 
Aggressive. Physical.
 
Mentally focused.
 
Great ballclub.

Kansas State stomped Texas 66-49 Thursday night in the
quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament.

And yet …
 
Despite coming off the heels of its first Big 12 regular-season title since the Carter administration (1977) — one it shared with rival Kansas — the Wildcats (26-6) are almost no pundit’s pick to be the last ones standing once the league tournament wraps up on Saturday night.
 
The Jayhawks? Hell, yes. The big dogs. Sprint Center is Phog East. It’s their party. Always is. Always will be.
 
The Cowboys? The sexy sleeper. The only team left in the field that can (almost) match Kansas, athlete for athlete, scrap for scrap, star for star. Plus, they’re carrying around the scalp to end all scalps: They won in Lawrence, desecrating the conference’s most sacred grounds.
 
The Wildcats? Nothing on this bandwagon but elbow room. Elbow room and crickets.
 
Oh, yeah. And Rick Barnes, riding shotgun.
 
“I think they’re the best team in the Big 12,” the Texas coach said of K-State. “I do. I think they’re the best team in the Big 12.
 
“They’re set up to win a tournament like this because they’re tough, they’re hard-nosed. They get their hands on a lot of balls. And you can’t help them. You can’t help them. And we helped them a lot (Thursday).”
 
Texas turned it over 15 times in the loss, which doesn’t sound like much, except that the Fighting Bevos got burned on nearly every one. The Wildcats piled up 24 points off Longhorn giveaways — 12 points in the first half, 12 points in the second.
 
“You can’t (do that against) a team that’s not going to beat themselves,” Barnes said. “You can’t fuel that fire.”
 
Not when you toss around the kind of defense that K-State brings to the table, almost routinely. The Wildcats had surrendered up 24 points to Longhorns guard Myck Kabongo down in Austin on February 23. Weber made him a point of shut-down emphasis in the rematch, and it showed: The sophomore went 0-for-5 from the floor, scored just two points, and turned it over five times.
 
“So the whole key with them, if you stop Myck Kabongo and you let other players make plays,” offered point guard Angel Rodriguez, who spearheaded the clamp job, “you’re going to have a higher chance of winning the game.”
 
Punch in, punch out. All business. It’s what they do. Style points? Style points are for suckers.
 
“The one thing that makes their team so good is they just have that will to win, and that passion,” noted Forte, whose Cowboys (24-7) survived Baylor, 74-72, in the last — and best — quarterfinal of the tourney, setting up a date with the Wildcats late Friday night in the semis. “And they just play so hard. I mean, when you play hard like that, it makes up for everything.”
 
What K-State lacks in star power, it makes up just about everyplace else. The Wildcats led the Big 12 in scoring defense (60.2 points per game), offensive rebounds (13.41), offensive rebound percentage (.390), rebounding defense (31.6 allowed), assists (16.34), turnover margin (plus-2.72) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.41).
 
They take care of the rock; swarm like angry hornets; rotate a variety of power-forward/center types in the paint depending on the matchup and foul situation; tote the loop’s most improved point guard in Rodriguez (13 points, five assists); and feature a front-line leading man in scoring wing Rodney McGruder, who dropped 24 on Texas.
 
And did we mention that the Wildcats ended the regular season last Saturday at Oklahoma State, with a 76-70 defeat that cost them a chance to own the Big 12 title outright?
 
“It’s always nice to play somebody that got ya,” K-State guard Martavious Irving said of the Cowboys. “Especially last time. Especially with what was at stake. And especially with what we could’ve had.”
 
For the past two years, the Wildcats were one and done at the Big 12 tourney, lost in the margins, a March afterthought. Coach Bruce Weber challenged his men this week to prove to the world that they weren’t just tough — they were survivors, too. Don’t worry about Kansas. Don’t worry about Saturday. Worry about today. Just go 1-0. Let the rest take care of itself.
 
“They’re a great defensive team and they play well together,” Forte observed. “I mean, you obviously have Rodney McGruder, who everyone knows about. Other than that, you have Angel Rodriguez, you have (Will) Spradling … I think anyone can go off at any moment. And that’s what makes them scary.”
 
Hungry, too.
 
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler

or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com