I think there’s a valid argument to be made that Kansas State is the most surprising team in the country, and it’s not because their expectations entering the season were so low that a 13-4 start overall, a 3-1 start in Big 12 play and home wins over Gonzaga, George Washington, Oklahoma State and — after Tuesday night’s 72-66 victory — Oklahoma.
It’s because a Kansas State team expected to be NIT-bound and finish in the bottom half of the Big 12 started out the season with a loss at home to Northern Colorado and a 1-2 performance in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, losing to Charlotte and following that up with a 27-point drubbing at the hands of Georgetown.
Thanksgiving had yet to come and go and just about everyone was ready to write this off as a rebuilding year for the Wildcats.
But then they started winning.
Ten straight, to be exact, and 11 of their last 12, the lone loss being an ugly loss at Phog Allen Fieldhouse.
The Wildcats have done it with defense. According to KenPom.com, Kansas State has been a top 15 team nationally in terms of defensive efficiency despite getting blown out by both Kansas and Georgetown. They run you off the three-point line, they force you out of the sets you want to run and they do a fair job of forcing turnovers. Get a bit better clearing the defensive glass, and you’re looking at a team that’s elite on that end of the floor.
The issue is scoring. The Wildcats don’t have a lot of real offensive weapons. Marcus Foster’s emergence has been enormous, giving the Wildcats a go-to guy in half court sets, but beyond Foster, there really isn’t much creativity on that end of the floor. That’s what makes the addition of Jevon Thomas so important. He can get in the lane off of the dribble, which is something that Kansas State is lacking.
The next step for Thomas is actually taking advantage of getting into the paint. Right now, the freshman is shooting 30.2% from the floor and just 5-for-17 from the line. Keep in mind, he’s only played six games at this level, so he hasn’t found a rhythm just yet.
If he can find a way to be a consistent scorer, to take some of the defensive focus away from Foster, the Wildcats have a chance to be pretty good. We’re probably not looking at a team that will compete for the Big 12 title, but sneaking their way into the top four isn’t out of the question.