K-State grows up in win over Ole Miss, but these ‘Cats have a long way to go

MANHATTAN, Kan. — They are not cured, per se, because the only cure for a loss to Northern Colorado in your home opener is to push the reset button on the PlayStation 3, take a deep breath, and go for a nice, long walk.

We don’t know if Bruce Weber owns a PlayStation, or if he even knows where the reset button on the stinking thing is. But we know this: For the first time in a very young and so far very trying season, the Kansas State men’s basketball coach has a win of substance to hang onto the wall next to that Big 12 co-championship trophy from last winter.

“We made some strides. We grew up,” Weber said after his Wildcats knocked off previously unbeaten Mississippi, 61-58, in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. “Obviously, in the big picture, you beat a very, very good team, that’s going to (beat) a lot of good teams and that has a lot of experience. They’re very good. I’ve said that all along: Their guard play is as good as anything.”

The Rebels entered Manhattan’s The Octagon of Doom ranked No. 1 in the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.3); they came out of Thursday night’s scrum having recorded seven assists and 13 giveaways. They brought the SEC’s No. 1 three-point shooting offense (39.1 percent from beyond the arc) into The Little Apple and left as the Kings of Bricktown. The Rebels shot 3 for 18 from beyond the arc, and lead dog Marshall Henderson, college basketball’s black hat, the man you love to hate, missed 11 of his 13 tries from long range — including an air ball with 3 seconds left that sealed the Wildcats’ upset.

“The entire team guards him when he’s out there,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said of the highly strung, streak-shooting guard, who wound up 4 of 18 from the floor. “So we talked a lot about, if there is an overplay, to throw it to the screener, shoot a layup, and we’ll go into overtime. We made the read, and from my angle, I don’t know if it (was) the right read or not, but we made the read to get him the ball.”

“Our focus,” Rebs guard Jarvis Summer said, “was just not locked in.”

The same could not be said of the K-State student section, which showed up in force for the first marquee home date of the winter, armed with large heads, strange costumes and signs directed at Henderson and his, ahem, checkered past.

One read:

MARSHALL
HENDERSON
HAS NO
RAGRETS

Another:

CAN
I
HAVE
MY
$800 BACK,
MARSHALL?

(Backstory: That last dig referred to an incident from the Ole Miss star’s high school days, in which he used $800 in counterfeit bills for the purposes of, reportedly, scoring marijuana. You stay classy, San Diego.)

At any rate, either Henderson didn’t see the signs in question, or he didn’t give a patootie. Other than a loud obscenity allegedly snarled during the Rebs’ second-half comeback, the controversial shooter seemed almost serene, at least compared to the let’s-kick-over-the-water-bottles-and-give-the-fans-the-bird-on-the-way-out-of-the-building exit he’d offered up over at Sprint Center this past March during the NCAA tourney.

“I cannot say enough about the students here and how they get into it,” Kennedy would say later. “You guys are a little spoiled.”

That might be true, of course, on several levels. And while Weber’s second team isn’t as bad up close as Twitter might have you believe, they are, at the moment, what we feared they might be: A team of role players and kids who look as if they’re missing their two best, reliable offensive options — namely, Rodney McGruder and Angel Rodriguez — from a year ago.

That’s not to say, of course, that alternatives won’t emerge: Freshman guard Marcus Foster (5-of-16 shooting, 15 points) isn’t shy when it comes to chucking it, and 6-7 freshman forward Wesley Iwundu (10 points, 10 rebounds) isn’t afraid to dig in there and scrap, despite his slight frame.

Foster’s trey from the far left corner with 1:25 to go in the contest put the hosts up four, the capper of an evening that cast him “in the mode of Mitch Richmond,” Kennedy observed, evoking hallowed memories of the former Wildcat shooting great. “See, I do know my K-State history.”

History will say that this isn’t a pretty offensive team, and it probably won’t be when the backcourt gets to full strength, either. Every possession has the potential for a nails-on-the-chalkboard moment, every sequence a battle.

But when the ‘Cats crash the boards — and we mean scrap for that rock like their meal money depends on it — they’ve got a chance to hang around. The numbers bear that out, too: They’re 4-1 when they out-rebound the opposition, 1-3 when they don’t. Under Weber, K-State is 24-2 when it wins the battle of the boards, 7-9 when it doesn’t, and 1-0 when the tallies are even.

“Yeah, I feel that way; we all feel that way, because we’re undersized,” noted center Thomas Gipson, whose 15 points, six boards, two blocks and assertiveness bailed out the hosts whenever the night — and the stage — seemed on the brink of getting too big for their britches. “But that’s what we have to do for us to win. If we can do that, not a lot of people are going to stop us in transition.”

The only tempo that was going to suit the Wildcats — the only one that’s going to suit them all winter — is a slugfest, and for the most part, that’s pretty much what we got. Unfortunately, these Wildcats are also either so young or so untested that every trip to the free-throw line is a potentially harrowing adventure.

That happens, sometimes, with rosters that feature kids who are trying to find their feet. But in close games, that’s going to come back to bite you, and with 14 second-half misses on 27 second-half attempts at the stripe Thursday, it darn well almost did. With the new hand-check enforcement and an emphasis on offensive flow, that line is either going to be the wind beneath your wings or the anchor around your ankle. It’s your choice.

“It’s frustrating,” Weber said, adding that he has tried playing good cop, bad cop, and every cop in between at practice to try and rectify the issue, to no avail. “But I keep telling them, you can’t do anything about it, but you can get stops.”

To stay above water against a good team, squads of Ole Miss’ weight class and above, they’ll have to. Either that, or Weber is going to end up walking himself straight off a very high ledge.

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