Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE
The Countdown marches onward as we've entered the realm of the true contenders. Coming in at #4, the Kansas State Wildcats.
2011-2012 Record: 22-11, 10-8
Key Losses: F Jamar Samuels
Key Additions: F Darrell Johnson and G Michael Orris
I think we're all going to miss Frank Martin. A curious hire originally, Martin turned out to be one hell of a coach and quickly became a fan favorite in Manhattan and even around the league. His departure was equal parts bizarre and shocking, just as was the announcement of his replacement, former Illinois coach Bruce Weber. After a run to the 2005 national title game, Weber's teams at Illinois never quite lived up to expectations. My initial thoughts when I heard of the hire were, surely Kansas State can do better, but after looking a little deeper into it, Weber and Kansas State might not be a bad fit.
Frank Martin's teams were noted for their defensive pressure, which is something Weber has also developed a reputation for. Furthermore, Weber was no slouch on the recruitment trail, consistently landing highly ranked classes in Champaign. Now, Weber doesn't have the talent-rich courts of Chicago a short car-ride away, but the in-roads Weber created while at Illinois should still be in play and I wouldn't be surprised to see a few kids with Chicago roots on future Wildcat rosters.
That's big picture though. What Weber has in the interim is a roster full of Big 12 veterans and one of the top players in the league in senior guard Rodney McGruder. There shouldn't be much drop off with Weber at the helm and that's why it's another NCAA tournament appearance for the Purple Powercats.
Senior Jordan Henriquez has come a long way. The 7-footer had trouble getting up and down the court a few seasons back, but has blossomed into a defensive force and could be in for a breakout performance in his senior campaign. He showed glimpses of figuring things out offensively down the stretch and if that's carried over, watch out. Another promising prospect is sophomore Thomas Gipson. The bulky bruiser averaged 7.0 PPG and 4.7 REB last year and goes 6'7" 270 pounds. He'll look to fill the void left by Jamar Samuels who led the team in rebounding and was the second leading scorer. The rotation after those two is a question mark. 6'10" sophomore Adrian Diaz returns, but he only appeared in 23 games and rarely played more than a few minutes in the ones he did get in. K-State adds freshman Darrell Johnson, who was a three-star recruit according to Rivals. Weber will likely employ more of a three guard lineup, so the lack of proven frontcourt depth may not be as glaring.
Guard play should continue to be a strength for the Wildcats with McGruder leading the way. The 6'4" senior had a breakout season last year, pouring in 15.8 PPG and showed that he can hurt opponents in a multitude of ways. McGruder rebounds well for his size, as he also pulled down 5.3 boards a night. If Kansas State is going to challenge for the conference crown, they'll need better play out of Angel Rodriquez and Will Spradling. Rodriquez showed flashes of brilliance, but he also showed a penchant for making costly mistakes, including turning the ball over and picking up far too many fouls. Spradling needs a bounce-back year in the worst way. After a promising freshman season, Spradling suffered the sophomore slump. He only converted on 33.1% of his 3PT attempts and was a frequent target of criticism for his poor defensive play. Weber will have solid guard depth at his disposal. Part-time starter Martavious Irving returns for his senior year. He lost minutes to Rodriquez last season but is a reliable ball handler and solid defender. Shane Southwell doesn't fill up the stat sheet, but at 6'6" provides a lengthy defensive presence. Jeremy Jones and freshman Michael Orris could also be in the mix for some minutes.
Why They'll Finish 4th
Truth be told, Kansas State has the talent to contend for the conference championship. McGruder is a player of the year candidate and with the emergence of Henriquez, it's going to be tough sledding scoring inside on this team. I just can't see this team sustaining a championship level of play for 18 conference games though. Bramlage Coliseum is one of the toughest venues in the league and the Wildcats should be stingy as always at home, but is there enough firepower here to consistently win on the road?
Why I Don't Know Shit
Two ways to go here. For those that have been following this series, you might think this is too high of a ranking. After all, Kansas State doesn't have a proven #2 scoring option after McGruder and with a new coach, this team in general is just too much of a wild card. Then again, there are those of you who can point to Kansas State's resolve and toughness, which helped them earn a win in the NCAA tournament last year and say that's just a sign of bigger things to come. Either way, I can't honestly say I see this team slipping any lower than 6th in the league, nor do I see K-State finishing any higher than 3rd.
Kansas State was all over the board last year. They were the only team in the league to sweep Missouri, but they also dropped a pair of contests to a bad Oklahoma team. This team will continue to hang their hat on the defensive end of the floor, but improving their outside shooting could go a long way in determining what type of season the Wildcats have. K-State shot just 33.5% as a team from three a season ago, good for only 7th in the conference.