The nicest thing you can say about West Virginia-Kansas State is that it’s over
MANHATTAN, Kan. — The nicest thing about West Virginia 65, Kansas State 59 would be to say nothing at all, but …
"FIFTY-SEVEN PERCENT AT THE FREE-THROW LINE, BRUCE! LET’S GET ON THAT!"
… we’re obligated …
"REFS AREN’T SUPPOSED TO BE ON THE HIGHLIGHTS!"
… to try and …
"WHAT DO YOU DO AT PRACTICE, COACH?"
… pick over the bones. Yeah.
Fuzzy, not so much.
On the heels of a beautiful, unseasonably toasty late-January afternoon, the locals at Bramlage Coliseum got restless in a hurry — and grew progressively surlier as the whistles blew fast and furious. The Wildcats (12-9, 5-3 Big 12 Conference) left the floor at the half to frustrated boos and were serenaded to the locker room after the game to furious ones.
"We just didn’t do a good enough job," coach Bruce Weber lamented. "Obviously, I’ve got to do a better job; (ditto the) staff; and execution’s got to be better after that."
In terms of matchups, No. 17 West Virginia’s press-first-ask-questions-later approach was the wrong dance partner for a K-State team that isn’t exactly confident in terms of ball security, nor assured enough at the free-throw stripe to make those constant hand-checks and slaps hurt the opposition.
Ergo, inbounding the rock was an adventure. Press-breaking sort of came and went, along with the ball.
And the foul shooting?
Oy. Also, vey.
"That’s what definitely hurts me the most right now, is free throws," guard Marcus Foster said after a night that included 15 points (good), six turnovers (less good) and four misses in nine trips to the charity stripe (very not good). "That’s something I’ve been working on, something that I’m not converting on right now."
Upside: The hosts went to the stripe early and often, taking 35 trips in all.
Downside: 20 makes.
The Mountaineers went to the stripe 29 times, making 21. If K-State had been on a similar clip, they would have netted five more points. Not enough to make up the difference, but maybe enough to make things more interesting. Or palatable.
From a tempo standpoint, the ‘Cats uglied it up, as the ‘Cats tend to do: 54 combined fouls, 45 combined turnovers, both teams shooting a collective 36.5 percent (38 for 104) from the floor. But West Virginia, with ice-for-veins lead guard Juwan Staten (11 points, three assists) in the backcourt and big Devin Williams (eight points, nine boards) in the post, seemed perfectly groovy with that. Bash away.
"I thought it was beautiful," Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins said, straight-faced, as only Huggs can. "I’ve never had an ugly (win). Ever."
There were all sorts of applicable adjectives to describe the officiating, most of which were R-rated. The evening, two-and-a-half hours in all, hovered between scrappy and confusing, with all the charms of an ingrown toenail.
Staten had been slapped with two fouls before the contest was 12 minutes old. Weber’s January savior, Nino Williams, spent much of the first half rubbing his left knee painfully after scoring six points in just eight minutes. He opened the second half on the pine with a new wrap — "Hopefully, it’s not a season-ending thing; we don’t know right now," Weber said — but never returned to the floor. By the end of the night, big forward Thomas Gipson was limping, too.
"We told them it was going to be a barroom brawl, a barroom fight," Weber said. "That’s just how it was. (It’s) just how they play.
"You’ve got to play strong. You’ve got to deal with it, and you’ve got to make free throws when they do foul you."
Sort of. Not really. And nope.
If you prefer your basketball to feel like an anvil dropped on your shin, the first half at the Octagon was for you: A combined 25 fouls, 27 turnovers — and 14 field-goal makes. The hosts missed on 22 of their first 29 attempts, many of them bunnies. K-State didn’t make a trey until two minutes and 43 seconds into the second half, a rainbow from the left corner by point guard Jevon Thomas.
We should’ve figured things would get strange when the tilt opened with a technical foul on Mountaineers forward Jonathan Holton, giving Foster two free throws just 17 seconds into the contest, and another foul on West Virginia’s Gary Browne some three seconds later. The zebras tried to take control from there, with mixed — actually, poor — results. It’s hard to find equilibrium, a happy center, when the goal posts are constantly on the move.
The Mountaineers kept moving, too, much to the chagrin of a ‘Cats team that loses its physicality — and confidence — when Williams isn’t on the floor.
K-State appeared gassed by the midway point of the second half, and a sequence with 9:21 left in the contest summed the proceedings as neatly as anything. With the Mountaineers up 46-41, West Virginia guard Tarik Phillip got a 3-point attempt along the left baseline blocked by Wesley Iwundu. The carom seemed to hang in the air forever, long enough for the smaller Phillip to rush in, grab his own miss on the descent, step to the lane and lay it in over Malek Harris — who ended up fouling him on the play. The visitors got three out of that sequence after all, pushing the lead to eight and exasperating a tired ‘Cats roster even further.
Beautiful? Not for Weber. Not after 25 turnovers.
"I think it’s awful, just bad basketball," the K-State coach said. "But (Huggins is) winning. They’re 17-3, so I’d be happy, too, and (say it’s) beautiful. It’s just their style."
Meanwhile, in Weber’s camp, the script flips, right along with the schedule. The ‘Cats take to the road for five of their next seven, starting with a trek to Allen Fieldhouse, Weber’s personal house of horrors, on Saturday afternoon. Then it’s on to Lubbock, where the Red Raiders (11-9, 1-6) already claimed an upset over No. 15 Iowa State just this past weekend, a home tilt with No. 19 Texas (14-6, 3-4) on Feb. 7, and then … at West Virginia on Feb. 11.
No one said living on the NCAA tourney fence was easy, or fair, but you lie in the nest you built. Tuesday didn’t pop that tenuous EMAW Bracketville Bubble, per se. But you could feel it start to deflate a little — one missed free throw at a time.
"It’s disappointing because we had made progress," Weber sighed. "And nothing gets easy, schedule-wise. But that’s part of this league."
No rest for the wicked. No mercy, either.