Inexperienced Wildcats chase another NCAA berth

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This is not the first time that Brittany Chambers has had to shoulder the responsibility Kansas State's success. In fact, she's been doing it for a while.

This year's challenge might be the toughest yet.

The Wildcats will be trying to follow up last season's 20-14 finish and their fifth trip to the NCAA tournament in six years by following a very different formula: They'll have to mix six experienced players with seven newcomers.

The Big 12 preseason coaches' poll reflected the uncertainty surrounding Kansas State, which was picked ahead of only TCU. It's the same place the Wildcats were picked to finish last season before rolling to another 20-win season and a fourth-place finish.

''Based on our lack of experience and size relative to everyone else in the league, I think it's a fair pick,'' Kansas State coach Deb Patterson said. ''But everyone who competes in this league understands it's a boxing match every night. It's tough as nails.

''You never know who's going to emerge when it's all said and done.''

With the graduation of All-Big 12 forward Jalana Childs and four other seniors, Kansas State lost 57 percent of its scoring and 56 percent of its rebounding.

The turnover of players also left the Wildcats with just two players over 6 feet.

The lack of size will be a big issue in the Big 12, where Brittney Griner and others create massive mismatches down low. Griner is among 10 players on Baylor's roster who are at least 6 feet, while West Virginia has nine, Texas seven and in-state rival Kansas five.

The only forward on Kansas State's roster with any experience is Chantay Caron, and that's a big reason why the Wildcats will depend heavily on her improved play this season.

''She can shoot the 3 now, which I think will help us, and is going to be a need because we are so small we're going to have to open the floor up a lot,'' Patterson said. ''Yet when she's at point-blank range and we need that big strong duck-in, we're going to need her to be a finisher.''

Nebraska transfer Katya Leick was expected to make her debut for the Wildcats this year, but she was lost for the year to an ACL injury. Junior Ashlynn Knoll and freshman Stacey Malone are the only other forwards who are expected to contribute.

That leaves Chambers with a load to carry in the backcourt.

She averaged 14 points and 6.2 rebounds last season, and Patterson said the pressure Chambers has had to carry throughout her career has helped her mature into an All-America candidate.

''It's going to be very important this year that she does have the ball in her hands a lot for her to initiate a lot of offense,'' Patterson said.

Fellow senior Mariah White averaged 4.8 assists and was a solid on-ball defender last year, but Patterson said she needs more than the 5.3 points she scored each game.

''With so many young players, Mariah at six points per game isn't going to be enough,'' Patterson said. ''We're going to need to stretch her to 10 or 12 a game, and I think she's looking forward to that challenge.''

Beyond Chambers and White, the backcourt consists of three sophomores and four freshmen - one of whom, Kelly Thomson, also went down with an ACL injury before the season began. Freshman Brianna Craig is expected to be the third guard playing significant minutes.

''Everything's changed for us,'' Patterson said. ''Besides the fact that we're extremely young and sort of down in numbers after losing both Katya Leick and Kelly to these ACL injuries, we're going to have to be more creative, play a little different.''

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