Kansas State’s Iwundu hopes to ditch his knuckleball and become a pure shooter
MANHATTAN, Kan. — You can tell that freshman Wesley Iwundu’s Kansas State teammates admire his zeal for the game, his hustle and his toughness around the glass.
"I’m not a big guy," said K-State’s Shane Southwell, who is 6 feet 7, "so when I can get help (rebounding) from guys (like Iwundu), that’s really big."
But it’s also obvious that Iwundu probably takes his fair share of needling in practice over his unorthodox shooting technique — his shots knuckleball toward the hoop in a manner that would have made Phil Niekro envious.
Even Iwundu’s fellow freshman teammate Marcus Foster, a gifted shooter, said when asked Tuesday night to give a scouting report on Iwundu, "You can sag off him because he can’t shoot."
But Foster then quickly added, "That was before tonight."
Indeed, K-State got an unlikely offensive boost from Iwundu in Tuesday night’s hard-fought, 72-66 win over Oklahoma.
Iwundu, who came into the game having made just one 3-pointer all season in five attempts, stunned everyone by burying all three shots he took from beyond the arc.
And none was bigger than the trifecta that Iwundu hit from the corner with just over five minutes left with the Wildcats trailing 62-56 and seemingly drifting from contention. That 3-pointer ignited a 10-1 K-State run that sealed the game.
"I was wide open and really had no choice but to make it," Iwundu said afterward with a shrug of the shoulders.
Foster was the one who delivered the pass to Iwundu.
"That was definitely a good shot for him," Foster said. "They backed off him and had two guys on me. His guy came over to me. I got the ball to him and I had total confidence in him."
Really? Total confidence?
At the beginning of the year, we didn’t know if he’d ever make a free throw.
"I see Wesley practicing before practice and after practice on his shot, on his 3-point shot and on his pull-up jump shots," Foster said. "He’s getting better."
That may be true, but Iwundu’s shot is still under heavy construction.
"He has worked on his shot," K-State coach Bruce Weber said. "And his rotation is getting much better. We work in practice with a piece of white tape around the ball so you can see if it’s rotating properly.
"At the beginning of the year, it was a knuckleball that spun every which way. It is supposed to spin perfectly, obviously. I would say that now, maybe four out of five he’s got pretty good rotation. He’s working at it."
Trying to ditch his knuckleball approach to shooting has provided benefits in another area — free-throw shooting. After a dismal start in that area, Iwundu has lifted his free-throw percentage to 69 percent.
"At the beginning of the year, we didn’t know if he’d ever make a free throw," Weber said. "Now he’s one of our better free-throw shooters."
Iwundu didn’t attempt a free throw Tuesday, but overall he was 4-of-6 shooting, scoring 11 points and grabbing six rebounds.
"I’ve been kind of absent the last couple of games," Iwundu said, "so this was good."
Iwundu had scored just four points in each of the previous two games, against TCU and Kansas.
But Weber said he doesn’t want Iwundu to get too concerned about his offense.
"I had a meeting with him (Monday) night and I told him, ‘Don’t worry about scoring. You got to rebound,’" Weber said. "And he came up with some big rebounds (against Oklahoma). And he had another tip-in that was called (off)."
That tip-in, off a missed free throw, would have given K-State a 68-62 lead at the time and allowed the Wildcats much more breathing room. But instead Iwundu was called for pushing off. Replays suggested it was a questionable call.
"I knew it was a bad call," Iwundu said. "My guy on the free-throw line kept falling asleep all night and I knew I could catch him. I got it and tipped it in."
That kind of hustle isn’t lost on Weber.
"He is active on the boards," Weber said, "and that should be his game."
But Iwundu isn’t about to concede that he can’t someday be a consistent contributor on offense, especially after his shooting performance Tuesday night.
"It’s definitely a confidence booster," he said. "It is not something I am going to look for now, but it is something I am going to continue to work on and get better at."
You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter @jflanagankc or email firstname.lastname@example.org.