Freshmen come up big in Kansas State’s win over No. 6 Oklahoma State

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Winners of eight straight games entering Saturday’s Big 12 opener against No. 6 Oklahoma State, Kansas State hasn’t been mentioned along with the likes of the Cowboys, Kansas, Iowa State and Baylor when it comes to who’s capable of winning the conference title. The reasons included the need to account for the graduation of Rodney McGruder, Angel Rodriguez’s decision to transfer to Miami and the lack of a clear-cut primary scoring option.

If Kansas State is to be successful they’ll need to do so as a committee, and that was the case Saturday as they beat the Cowboys 74-71 in Manhattan. And two of the key figures were players who were not Wildcats last season, as freshman Marcus Foster racked up 17 points and eight rebounds and classmate Jevon Thomas added ten points and five assists in his third game at K-State.

Offensively Foster’s somewhat taken over the role left vacant by McGruder, entering the game averaging a team-best 13.8 points per game, and that continued to be the case on Saturday afternoon.

Thomas on the other hand proved to be the spark plug the Wildcats envisioned against Oklahoma State, with his speed proving to be a factor on both ends of the floor but especially on offense. Offensively he gives Kansas State a point guard capable of applying pressure to the opposition off the dribble, something they lacked while he sat out during the remainder of the fall semester. After using that speed to set up teammates in his first two games (5.0 apg), Thomas got untracked scoring-wise against Oklahoma State.

Add in the interior toughness displayed by rugged forward Thomas Gipson (11 points, ten rebounds) and 15 points from Nino Williams, and Weber’s Wildcats were able to put forth the effort needed to survive shooting 36% from the field. Kansas State will be successful when they’re balanced offensively, and defensively when they make teams work for everything they get in the half court.

Oklahoma State’s perimeter tandem of Markel Brown and Marcus Smart entered Saturday averaging a combined 33.7 points per game with both shooting at least 46.7% from the field. They may have scored 31 points against Kansas State, but the duo did so while shooting 8-for-22 from the field (36.4%). And when this happens it’s tough for the Cowboys to win, even with Le’Bryan Nash accounting for 20 points and nine rebounds.

Can Kansas State surprise some people and contend for another Big 12 title? That remains to be seen. But if there’s anything to be taken from their win over Oklahoma State, it’s that the Wildcats have no intention of going down without a fight.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.