KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) Kansas State gathered to watch La Salle play its first-round game in the NCAA tournament, unsure whether they’d be getting the Explorers or Boise State on Friday afternoon.
What the Wildcats saw of La Salle was a mirror image of themselves.
Nine games into the season and struggling to learn new coach Bruce Weber’s motion offense, Kansas State scrapped most of what it had been doing and went with a four-guard lineup. And ever since, the Wildcats have been more efficient on offense, just as tenacious on defense, and good enough to earn a share of the Big 12 title and a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“The offense has done a great job of putting each player where he’s comfortable,” junior guard Will Spradling said, “and then getting them in places where they can make plays. So we’re real comfortable with the offense now. It’s obviously been working for us.”
That might be an understatement.
Since ditching their two-post lineup, the Wildcats (27-7) have improved their their scoring, field-goal percentage, 3-point field-goal percentage and assist numbers, getting superb play from Spradling and fellow guards Rodney McGruder, Angel Rodriguez and Shane Southwell.
“There’s very few teams that combine their level of toughness with their level of execution,” La Salle coach John Giannini said. “They’re very balanced. They’re terrific on both ends.”
The No. 13 seed Explorers (21-9) go with a similar lineup, led by veteran guards Tyrone Garland, Ramon Galloway, Sam Mills and Tyreek Duren who are capable of filling up the box score.
“They do a tremendous job of spreading you out, and dribble-drive,” McGruder said. “If you go big, it’s hard to guard them, because their four-man is really a two-guard. If you go with two big guys, it’s hard for a four-man to get out on the wing.
“They just dribble-drive, try to get whatever they want,” McGruder said. “They try to catch you slipping almost. They penetrate the guy, flip back for 3s and things like that.”
Weber compared La Salle’s style to the chuck-a-3 modus operandi of Iowa State, one of just three teams from the Big 12 to beat the Wildcats this season. La Salle hit 18 3-pointers in a game against Fordham earlier this year.
“You have to worry about the 3, but you really have to worry about layups,” Weber said. “First time we faced Iowa State, we gave up too many layups. They’re going to make a couple 3s, but we have to limit the number of layups they get.”
The Wildcats should have two advantages on Friday: a home court and a little bit of rest.
Their campus in Manhattan is about a 2-hour drive from the Sprint Center, so they should have a healthy amount of support – including some fans of Kansas, which is also playing at the downtown arena on Friday. Kansas State beat Florida in the building in December, and won two games in the Big 12 tournament before falling to the Jayhawks last Saturday night.
“Playing in Kansas City, over the last couple weeks, it was one of the carrots we hung out there for the guys, one of our goals,” Weber said. “We were able to accomplish that.
“It doesn’t guarantee you a victory,” he quickly added. “We have some familiarity with the arena and played in here obviously last weekend three times, then against Florida, but once the game goes, the jump ball starts, you got to play basketball against a very, very good team.”
The Wildcats haven’t played in nearly a week, though.
La Salle will be playing for the second time in less than 48 hours.
The Explorers, who are making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1992, had to board a plane immediately after beating Boise State on Wednesday night, and Galloway admitted that he didn’t get a whole lot of sleep before arriving for Thursday afternoon’s practice.
“At this point in time,” he said, “you have no time to be tired.”
Giannini didn’t even bother taking advantage of the Explorers’ allotted time on the Sprint Center floor on Thursday, instead using a walkthrough at the team hotel to prepare. He didn’t want his guys wasting what energy they had left in a practice.
“This is going to be the most boring open practice ever. We’re not going to use any of it,” Giannini said before stepping onto the court. “We need to save our energy, our emotion for Kansas state, because it’s a great opportunity. We worked awfully hard to get here.”