Again, K-State wasn’t pretty at TCU — but again, it worked like a bloody charm
They are not for everyone, these Wildcats. To borrow liberally from mixed martial arts, the camera tends to favor the pretty college basketball teams, the ones that kick and pummel with a flurry of blows, the ones that ground-and-pound, like Chael Sonnen. Kansas State is more the submission hold type.
Alfred Hitchcock’s killers were stabbers and stranglers; Bruce Weber’s team is more likely to bash you repeatedly with a tube sock full of quarters, then try to suffocate what’s left with a pillow.
But hey, whatever works.
If you invested a nickel in K-State hoops in November, you could retire and buy a nice little condo in Cabo San Lucas by now. Iowa State may be the darlings of the Big 12, but nobody in the league — maybe nobody in the country — has come as far and as fast as Weber’s Wildcats (12-3, 2-0 in league play) have over the past two months.
Take Tuesday night’s trek to Texas Christian, a doozy that had "trap game" written in giant Times-Square-sized letters, sandwiched as it was between a visit from No. 6 Oklahoma State and a trip to No. 18 Kansas.
But Weber’s kids didn’t bite, so gold stars all-around in a workmanlike 65-47 victory, the program’s 10th straight. Granted, beating the Horned Frogs in basketball is like beating Indonesia in the World Cup: If you do, great, if you don’t, mass panic ensues. TCU’s primary weapon is the off chance that you overlook them completely (hello, Kansas); its secondary weapon is that you’re simply bored to tears at the very idea of playing them (Kansas, again).
The Wildcats were unusually sloppy in Fort Worth (18 turnovers), but coasted anyway. Well, maybe not so much "coasted" as "plodded along" — K-State led by as many as 14 in the first half and took a 21-8 rebound cushion into the break. When the Froggies tried a man-to-man approach, the Wildcats beat them off the dribble or burned them from the outside (7-15 from beyond the arc); when TCU zoned, the K-State guards worked the gaps or found center Thomas Gipson (19 points, eight boards) for friendly looks underneath.
It was more of the tube-sock-pummeling approach, where everybody plays hellacious defense, and the offense figures out a way to lean on Gipson down low, Marcus Foster (16 points) out on the wing, or Shane Southwell (seven points, six rebounds, four assists) somewhere in between.
They come in waves, too: The Wildcats started the week with 10 players averaging 13 minutes or more per game, and "glue" types such as Nino Williams, Omari Lawrence (four points, three assists) and D.J. Johnson (two points, four boards) keep finding little, constructive ways to keep the party going. The eligibility of freshman point guard Jevon Thomas has been a revelation on two fronts, allowing senior off-guard Will Spradling to move over to a more natural shooter’s role and adding a relentless, mosquito-like defender to sic on the other team’s point man.
It’s not always pretty, mind you, but it’s bloody effective. In Kansas State’s first five contests, a stretch that included a slam-your-head-against-the-desk loss at home to Northern Colorado and setbacks to Georgetown and Charlotte in Puerto Rico, the Wildcats turned it over an average of 12 times, got curb-stomped on the boards by margin of -5.2 rebounds a contest, and went 2-3 in the process.
Over the Wildcats’ last five tilts, a run that has included victories over Gonzaga, George Washington and Oklahoma State, the Fighting Webers have turned it over an average of 9.8 times, own a +5.4 edge in average rebound margin per game, and went 5-0.
And isn’t it funny how, as perceptions change, the bar changes, too. A week ago, the web site TeamRankings.com gave the âCats a 15.2 percent chance of making the Big Dance. On Monday, those chances were amended to 40.2 percent. And climbing. K-State is 4-2 on road/neutral floors, 3-1 against teams ranked among the top 25 in Ratings Percentage Index and 6-1 against teams in the RPI’s top 100.
Of course, momentum figures to be a fickle mistress, given how insanely deep the Big 12 looks this winter, Frogs and Red Raiders notwithstanding. Of K-State’s next 10 contests, five are on the road, and nine are versus squads ranked among the RPI Top 70. And yes, K-State didn’t play its first "true" away contest until Tilt No. 15; if you want to hold that against the Wildcats, fair enough.
Still, 1-0 is 1-0. It’s safe to say 2-0 is going to be a hell of a lot trickier. That whole death-by-pillow move hasn’t worked on Bill Self yet.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.