At K-State, winning ugly works — for now

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Other than the fact his team tends to toss bricks around like coins in a fountain, Bruce Weber kind of digs what he’s got. It’s a Kansas State basketball squad that crashes the boards like mad, takes care of the rock, and plays the kind of defense that qualifies as a misdemeanor in 28 states.
The Wildcats (7-1) head into Saturday’s tilt with No. 14 Gonzaga up in Seattle ranked first in the nation in offensive rebounds (19.3 per game) and second in 3-point field goal percentage defense (22.2). They’re sixth in rebounding (44.6), 13th in average points allowed (54.6), 15th in rebounding margin (+10.4) and 25th in turnover margin (+4.3).
These are good things. These aren’t: In its first true road game of the season last Saturday, K-State shot 35.7 percent from the floor at George Washington, sweating out a 3-point victory. In their first marquee test, against No. 4 Michigan in New York City back on Nov. 23, the ‘Cats shot 36.7 percent from the floor, 22.2 percent from beyond the arc, and lost by 14.
“Sometimes, you put the best-planned scenario out there and it doesn’t happen and kids have to adjust,” says Weber, who’s off to the best start, record-wise, for a first-year K-State coach since Lon Kruger also started out at 7-1 in 1986-87.  “Somewhere in January — I hope it’s not late February — I hope it’s somewhere in there that the light goes on.
“We’re not a great shooting team overall, but I think we have enough guys who can make some that can spread the defense. They’ve got to get confidence and feel good about themselves.”
Is he concerned? A little. But worried? No. After all, speaking of guys that can spread a defense, consider the curious case of senior guard Rodney McGruder, a career 45.1 percent shooter, 39 percent on treys. He’s sitting at 40.2 and 25.9 percent respectively, which means the guy either picked a lousy time to hit a wall, or that he’s due, and those shots are, at some point, going to fall, and fall in bunches.
“I think we have the pieces,” Weber continues. “We still could become hard to guard if that light comes on somewhere in the next couple weeks and months.”
The Pacific Northwest would be a nice place to start, you feel. The Zags (9-1) are a nice pelt to have on the wall come NCAA Tourney time, and it hasn’t exactly been a glorious first five weeks for the Big 12, Kansas notwithstanding.
The league is 0-5 head-to-head against the Big Ten (with two of the losses coming, to, of all programs, Northwestern) and 3-4 versus the Pac-12.  As of late Thursday afternoon, the Big 12 was just the seventh-highest conference in terms of overall Ratings Percentage Index (.552, collectively), behind the Mountain West (.567) and Atlantic-10 (.562); it’s 1-8 versus the Top 25, according to the web site Texas, TCU and Texas Tech went into Thursday night’s action ranked No. 156, No. 204, and No. 281 in the RPI, respectively. Woof.
Of course, Gonzaga (RPI: 20) doesn’t mess around, having already shredded a couple of Big 12 dance partners in West Virginia (by 34) and Oklahoma (by 25). The Zags lead the nation in field-goal percentage (52.7) while ranking seventh in points scored per game (82.7) and sixth in points per possession (1.19). Gonzaga’s also coming off an 85-74 home loss to No. 10 Illinois last weekend, its first of the season, an outcome that feels like a bit of a mixed blessing for Weber, given that he was the Illini’s coach a year ago at this time.
A lot of those Ilinois kids were ones he brought into the program, for whatever that’s worth. It’s also a group that came west averaging 10.8 three-point makes per game, then went out and nailed 11 more in Spokane. Nothing quiets a home crowd quite like a hot shooter, let alone three or four. Problem is, Weber is still sort of looking for one: K-State’s averaging just six treys per contest.
“I don’t know if we can make 11 or 12 threes,” the coach says. “Then after watching some of their scores earlier in the year, beating West Virginia by 30-something and Oklahoma by 20-something, you’re like, ‘Man, are they beatable?'”
They are, but not in a track meet. The other way to travel well is playing killer defense for 94 feet, ramping up the pressure, using turnovers to create easy baskets. Weber’s been pushing that aspect in drills, too, as a safety valve until the shooting starts to come around again.
“I’d like to push,” he says. “We’re pretty good in transition … I think (point guard) Angel (Rodriguez) has got to get it in his mind, and even (guards) Will (Spradling) and Martavious (Irving). If we can get it up and down and put a little pressure on the (other) team, that’ll help us, too. They get a little frustrated in practice. We’ll do some 3-on-2s and 3-on-1s … when we do 5-on-5, I’ll do a 15-second shot clock just to get going. But it’s a good conditioner; it also puts pressure on them. Especially on the road: The crowd goes nuts, the best thing you can do is — boom — get a layup, and you regain momentum.”
Some teams fly, others teams grind, and this one has all the earmarks of a grinder. Weber is fine with winning 61-55 games, if that keeps the party going through the middle of March. Ugly works, as long as your kids are fully dedicated to the cause. With this bunch, it just might have to.
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