Oh, for an Angel: K-State still has more questions than answers at point guard

Jevon Thomas and the Wildcats put up a valiant effort against the Cyclones but it wasn't quite good enough. 

Reese Strickland/Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sport

What drives you nuts — or should, if you care — is that almost all the other pieces are right there, neatly laid out, on the game board. Hustle (Nino Williams). Muscle (Thomas Gipson). Flash (Marcus Foster). Depth (Justin Edwards, Stephen Hurt, Malek Harris). A nasty, floor-slapping defensive mindset.

But when it comes to point guard — the straw that stirs everything, the backbone, the pilot, the rock, the steadying influence, the coach on the court — Kansas State leaves a blank space, more questions than answers.

The Wildcats (11-8 overall, 4-2 Big 12) fell at No. 9 Iowa State 77-71 on Tuesday night, a game effort at a positively brutal place to play. And even the final margin belies how close this bad boy really was: Before the final three minutes, the two old rivals were tied 10 times and swapped leads on 10 occasions.

The Cyclones finished the game on a 10-2 run to close it out before a tense Hilton Coliseum crowd. K-State drained two field goals over the final eight minutes and 30 seconds as an offense that had found a flow suddenly ground to a halt.

And the tale of the tape at the point ain’t pretty:

Iowa State’s Monte Morris netted 11 points with four assists, three rebounds and one turnover, draining a massive floater with 37 seconds left in a two-point contest that put the hosts up 73-69.

His counterpart, K-State’s Jevon Thomas: Zero of four from the floor, five assists, four rebounds and three giveaways. With three minutes to go in a 69-69 game, the 6-foot-1 New Yorker had a clean look at the tin and crashed the lane … only to have his layup swatted away by the Cyclones’ Abdel Nader, sending the hosts on a run-out the other way.

Lookin’ good! Check out our gallery of college basketball cheerleaders. 

With the exception of contests featuring Texas Tech, TCU and, hell, any game involving Texas, the Big 12 this winter is about fine margins, little moments, small possessions that salvage — or toss away — narrow wins.

Which is not to lay the blame for Tuesday solely at the feet of Thomas; coach Bruce Weber admitted to whiffing on his play-calling down the stretch and Foster, who everybody in a four-state area knows is getting the ball at the end of the shot clock, was forced into a series of atrocious looks.

And while we’re on the subject, K-State’s record in games decided by six points or less under Weber bears some mention:

2012-13: 7-4

2013-14: 6-5

2014-15: 4-5

Oh, for a Will.

Or, dare we say it, an Angel.

Despite what his detractors will tell you, Weber is a good coach, a sound coach, one who gets more guff than he deserves. But that’s not to say some of the criticisms aren’t valid, and the Wildcats’ inability to shore up an option at the point beyond Thomas or Nigel Johnson, and their relative development, are probably two of the cardinal sins, most damning indictments, of the present.

A K-State team that went into Ames with the nation’s 229th-ranked scoring offense dropped 71 points on the road, inside one of the Big 12’s nastiest venues. When the run-and-gun Cyclones dared the ‘Cats to give chase, until the final few ticks, Team EMAW was up to the challenge. And they did this despite appearing to be forced into a four-on-five situation, offensively, for much of the evening. 

Which is impressive or sad, depending on how you want to shake the glass. Iowa State continually sagged off Thomas — who came in averaging just six points and four field-goal attempts per tilt — in the half-court, almost daring him to hurt them.

He didn’t.

Which is a genuine pity, big picture, given the guts spilled and sweat and blood left on the floor, tilt after tilt, since the ‘Cats bottomed out at Stillwater on Jan. 3. K-State has a winning record in the nation’s nastiest collegiate basketball conference, and it has earned every inch of it, winning in Norman against a salty, relentless Oklahoma crew and nearly taking out, in Ames, the best Iowa State team since the salad days of Fizer and Tinsley.

If the ‘Cats play this hard on the road, against this kind of quality, they’re going to force heads to turn, ram themselves back into the national conversation. If K-State can steal another win at a ranked opponent — although it might take two — and hold serve at The Octagon of Doom, the hypothetical slots in Bracketville, the ones floating about various corners of the Web in late January, could very well become real ones. The right 10-8 record in the Big 12 should punch somebody’s ticket, and it might not matter if that somebody also happened to lose to Texas Southern at home.

For 22-to-25-minute stretches, the ‘Cats can play with anyone; it’s the other 15 to 18 minutes where the collective noggins start to float somewhere left of Neptune. Although over the past fortnight, those wandering spells have become shorter and refreshingly less severe. The ‘Cats aren’t talented enough not to play smart, not to play hard, not to go at 110 mph on every pass, every cut, every shot, every defensive set.

And no one embodies that spirit right now better than Williams, the 6-foot-5 forward who went from a supporting role to pulling the sled. The St. Louis native netted a career-best 22 points Tuesday on eight-of-13 shooting while pulling down eight boards, dishing four assists and collecting three steals. Williams isn’t the most gifted player on the floor, but he’ll be damned if he lets somebody outwork him. Foster gets the headlines, the top of the marquee, but Williams is Team EMAW’s heart, the engine.

Just imagine how far this train could go if it had a stronger conductor.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @SeanKeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.