Kansas State reaping the rewards of improved defense

K-State has held last three opponents under 60 points

Arne Green
Salina Journal
Kansas State guards Nijel Pack (24) and Mike McGuirl double team Oklahoma's Jalen Hill (1) during Tuesday night's game at Bramlage Coliseum. The Wildcats upset No. 7 Oklahoma, 62-57.

It became apparent to Bruce Weber some time ago that his Kansas State Wildcats were no offensive juggernaut and probably wouldn't become one anytime soon.

More disturbing for Weber, who built his coaching reputation on stubborn defenses, was the Wildcats' inability to stop opponents in their tracks.

So as the losses piled up during a losing streak that eventually reached 13 games, he turned to the film archives for a little history lesson.

Little by little, his young team got better, until the last 10 days things finally started to click. It began with a 59-41 loss to Kansas on Feb. 17, where their own lack of scoring was the main culprit.

It was no accident then that in the back-to-back victories that followed — at TCU last Saturday and at home against Oklahoma on Tuesday — the Wildcats prevailed on the back of their defense.

"It's astronomical, and I give credit to the (assistant) coaches, and obviously the players had to buy in," Weber said of the defensive turnaround after the Wildcats locked down No. 7-ranked Oklahoma down the stretch to win, 62-57. "What we did was started showing some of our former teams and how they guarded, and just to make the guys understand.

"I don't think they understood what it's about. We didn't have basic habits, we didn't have concepts. We've missed a lot of stuff."

Part of it was the coronavirus pandemic that robbed a team composed primarily of freshmen and sophomores of valuable preseason practice time.

Sophomore guard DaJuan Gordon, who benefitted from a full preseason his freshman year, agreed that practice and repetition are crucial in grasping Weber's defensive concepts.

"It's pretty hard when you first get here. But once you get here and know all the principles, it's easy," Gordon said. "It's (about) helping. You're playing to help the next guy all the time, so it's all about helping your teammate.

"It's fun when we're just scrambling. Everybody's just running and taking the next thing. It's just so fun communicating, everybody on the same page. As long as we're communicating, scrambling and takin the next rotation, it helps us big time."

The last two games were living proof.

"Now as the season's going on, slowly but surely they've figured some things out," Weber said. "We're better one-on-one. They (Oklahoma) are so good at getting in the paint and beating you, and they did a few times. But we stayed in front of them and made it tough on them and made them earn everything."

The same was true against TCU, where the Wildcats came from behind to win, 62-54. In fact, over the past three games, they have allowed an average of just 56.7 points while holding opponents to 39.1% shooting.

K-State (7-18, 3-13 in the Big 12) will look to continue that trend at 3 p.m. Saturday in Morgantown, West Virginia, when they face No. 10 West Virginia (16-6, 9-4). The Mountaineers are on a bit of a roll themselves, having won five of their last six games.

West Virginia beat the Wildcats, 69-47, on Jan. 23 in Manhattan, forcing 28 turnovers.

For K-State, the magic number this season has been 60. They are 5-1 when holding opponents below that total and have won just twice when giving up more points.

Weber related a conversation with assistant coach Shane Southwell after the most recent KU game, where Southwell lamented the Wildcats' lack of scoring.

"He said, 'Coach, we've got to score,' (and) I told him that I think it's the other way," Weber said. "We've got to stop them. We haven't scored. That's not changing now.

"That changes in the offseason with your habits and getting in the gym and all that stuff. There's no doubt that (capping opponents below 60 points) gives you a chance. I hope (the players) feel good about it and have some pride with it."

KANSAS STATE AT NO. 10 WEST VIRGINIA

Tipoff: 3 p.m., Saturday, WVU Coliseum, Morgantown, W.Va.

Records: Kansas State 7-18 (3-13 Big 12), West Virginia 16-6 (9-4).

TV/Radio: ESPN2/Salina: KSAL-AM (1150); Topeka: WIBW-AM (580).

Next up for K-State: vs. Iowa State, 4 p.m. March 6, Bramlage Coliseum, Manhattan.