Marcus Foster, Jeff Mullahey

The most surprising team in the country: Kansas State

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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, 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.

Michigan State playing zone? It’s possible

Tom Izzo
Associated Press
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Throughout Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State the team’s half-court man-to-man defense has been a staple, and the Spartans have generally proven difficult to have a high rate of offensive success against. The reliance on that defense is why Izzo’s conversations earlier this summer about using some token full-court pressure due to the shortening of the shot clock caught some people off-guard.

According to the Detroit Free Press there’s another wrinkle the Spartans may use, and it’s likely that this wrinkle will show up more often than the full-court press. During Friday’s opening practice the Spartans worked on a 2-3 zone, and Izzo wants his assistants to make sure the team works on the defense consistently throughout the season.

That’s also why zone in general isn’t going to get heavy play at MSU, but having it as a tool could be beneficial — especially in games with touch fouls on the perimeter called in droves.

“I told (my assistant coaches): ‘You hold me accountable to working on it every day some’ … I have a tendency to drift off on that, and I don’t want to drift off on it,” Izzo said of the 2-3 zone. “But we will be, rest assured, a 90-some percent man-to-man team still and hopefully take some of those principles to zone.”

As noted in the story one of the risks in using pressure is allowing quality shots, which is why it’s unlikely that Michigan State will go to it. But even with Izzo vowing that his team will work on the zone, that doesn’t mean they’ll be playing it as often as Syracuse does.

Man-to-man has been Michigan State’s staple and it will continue to be. But it doesn’t hurt to look for other ways to keep opponents from getting the looks they want, especially if teams have five fewer seconds to find those shots.

Virginia used 3-on-3 to adjust to new shot clock

Malcolm Brogdon
Associated Press
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When the college basketball rules committee made the decision to trim the shot clock down to 30 second from 35, one reason for the switch was the desire to improve offensive production. With offensive numbers at their lowest point in years, proponents of the move see the shot clock change as a necessary move if scoring is to improve.

Whether or not that winds up being the case will be seen throughout the upcoming season, but teams are still having to make adjustments during the preseason.

Virginia, which has played at a snail’s pace (and with great success, mind you) in recent years, made some adjustments to their summer work in anticipation of playing with a 30-second shot clock. One adjustment was more games of 3-on-3 with a 15-second shot clock, which forced all involved to be more decisive in their offensive decision-making.

While the pack-line defense will always be a staple of Tony Bennett’s teams, the feeling in Charlottesville is that they’ve got the offensive firepower needed to both play faster and be more efficient offensively than they were in 2014-15 (29th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). One of the players who will lead the way is senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led the team in scoring and was a first team All-ACC selection, and he discussed the team’s outlook with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

And even though Anderson’s highlight-reel shot blocking was the thing that frequently fueled fast-breaks for U.Va. last season, Brogdon and [Anthony] Gill said they expect this year’s team to actually push the tempo even more.

“I think we’re going to be a team that gets out and runs more,” Brogdon said. “I think we’ll have three guards on the floor, most of the time, will be able to handle the ball as a point guard and get out in transition. I think we’ll play a lot faster.”

Brogdon and Gill are two of the team’s three returning starters with point guard London Perrantes being the other, and the Cavaliers also return most of their reserves from last year’s rotation. That experience will help them on both ends of the floor as they prepare for a run at a third straight ACC regular season title. And in theory it also allows them to extend themselves a bit more offensively than they did a season ago.