After three games in five days, the Tigers had almost a week to process their start to the season. Since then, we've talked about buying in, and we've studied the halls... and it's time to move onto game number four. The Tigers move into full CBE mode as they head to the Sprint Center in Kansas City for two games in two days.
The Tigers start tonight with the Kansas State Wildcats. Game time is at 6pm, and the winner will take on the winner of the Northwestern/North Carolina game. So let's take a quick look at the Kansas State Wildcats...
Remember your old Big 12 Rival Kansas State Wildcats
Kansas State is currently 96th in the KenPom rankings, and riding a wild three game winning streak to start the season. Since we last left the Big 12, Kansas State was a top 30 team and managed to put a serious damper into Mizzou's 2012 run through the Big 12 by beating the Tigers twice. Mizzou finished 14-4 that season and second to the other team from Kansas. Then Mizzou left for the greener pastures of the SEC, and Frank Martin followed them into the league by taking over South Carolina, and K-State hired Bruce Weber, who had recently been fired by Illinois. Weber slid right in and continued to do what he's best known for... winning with other coaches players.
Since Weber took over it's been a steady slide from being ranked 21st in 2013, to 43rd in 2014, to 88 last year, to their current position at 96. In this past offseason, the Wildcats had several players transfer, a few were kicked off, and a host of freshmen players enter. Weber hasn't exactly lit up the recruiting trails either, leaving this year to be pretty important for him as some of the patience in the program is starting to get a little thin.
Now for a closer look at their basketball team, let's chat with somebody who knows them best...
Q&A With BRING ON THE CATS
Remember these guys? Our unholy alliance, I assume, still exists... but we pause it for the first action between these two teams since Mizzou joined the SEC. We asked Luke Thompson, who also appeared on the last Rock M Radio podcast, if he could help us out and answer a few questions about his Kansas State Wildcats, and he agreed.
RockMNation: Bruce Weber started out really hot but has struggled to maintain the success of the Frank Martin era. Do K-State fans feel like Weber is still the right guy to get the job done at this point?
Luke Thompson: No, not really. It seems to me at this point there are two camps when it comes Weber, and neither is overly positive. The first wanted him gone at the end of last season, and a lot of these people are probably the same ones who hated the hire from the beginning. To be honest, I did, too, but whether or not he recruited his players in his debut season, he still won the program's first regular season conference title in 36 years. That counts for a lot, even if it's followed by a first round NCAA tourney dud and steady regression over the next two seasons.
Obviously, then, I'm a part of the second camp, which feels Weber deserves another shot at a rebuild, but he absolutely has to show progress this season. Whether that means something tangible such as an NIT or NCAA bid depends on your perspective, but we need some reason to believe Weber is getting things on the right track. The early signing of St. Louis three-star Xavier Sneed helps, too, and now it's time to see some results on the court.
RMN: Wesley Iwundu, one of the only major contributors from last year, is off to a strong start. What makes him such a tough matchup and what is the best way to slow his production?
Thompson: Wesley has always had incredible length and athleticism. In the past, a certain tentativeness always seemed to hold him back, and sometimes he would just disappear. He bulked up over the summer and so far this season he's playing much more aggressive, probably because he realized he has to be a scorer for this team. At the same time, he also has good enough court awareness and passing ability to make you pay if you're not careful. As for stopping Wesley, the best idea is probably to make him shoot jump shots. He's 0-for-5 from 3 this year and made just 13 in his first two seasons. If he does get into the paint, fouling could be an effective strategy since he isn't a very good free throw shooter.
RMN: One of the struggles this year for the Wildcats has been shooting the ball. Do you feel this is a small sample size problem or a season long issue, and how does Kansas State compensate for it?
Thompson: Well, K-State didn't make a single jump shot in the first 19:57 of the season opener against Maryland Eastern-Shore, so at least there's nowhere to go but up from there. Unfortunately, I think this is going to be a major concern for the offense. A few guys like Justin Edwards, Barry Brown and Dean Wade can get hot from the outside, but for the most part the 'Cats need to get to the rim. That probably means sharp passing and plenty of pushing the ball in transition to try to get some easier baskets before the defense gets set.
RMN: If there is one thing you are worried most about this game, what is it?
Thompson: I'm still not sold on the point guard play. The two main guys from last season — Jevon Thomas and Nigel Johnson — both transferred out, which is fine because they could never really figure out how to run Weber's motion offense. Newcomers Kamau Stokes, Carlbe Ervin and Barry Brown have been solid so far, but this is their first game away from Bramlage against what should be by far the most athletic backcourt and most pressure they've seen at the NCAA level. If they struggle, it could be very difficult for the 'Cats to score in the halfcourt.
RMN: Last, how do you see this game playing out? And what is your final score prediction?
Thompson: I think it's going to be a close one, played largely on the perimeter with both teams looking to play uptempo and slash to the basket as much as possible since neither team has anything resembling a true post player. Taking care of the basketball will be huge, and the same goes for making outside shots to open up driving lanes. Let's say K-State pulls away late for a 74-70 win to earn a date with Northwestern on Tuesday.
So Luke takes the under. The spread on today's game is set at 5.5 which I think is a touch bullish on K-State, personally. I'd probably set it between 3.5 - 4.5. K-State has a couple more proven players and an identity, and KenPom has Mizzou at a 38% chance to win, again I think that's a touch bullish on K-State. I would think a 55-45 split is more accurate. I picked Mizzou to win this game in the preseason, and I'm going to stick with that, despite the odds at this point.
So if the Tigers are to win, let's figure out how they might do it...
1) It'll probably be important to rebound a little
If you look at the graphic above, Kansas State doesn't really do a whole lot very well, but they rebound the heck out of the ball. That's one area that has seemingly carried over from the Frank Martin era, they may not score a whole lot, but they'll throw all five guys at the rim trying to get easy putbacks. They also do a great job of preventing putbacks. If you've watched the three games so far, you'll also probably notice that this is not a strength of our Tigers. So the biggest key to Kansas State winning the game is to dominate the glass, Mizzou just has to prevent getting dominated. The closer they keep the Wildcats to the national average, the better shot they have of pulling the upset.
2) Freshmen v Freshmen
Weber has a young team on his hands, he has three freshmen guards in Barry Brown, Dean Wade and Kamau Stokes who are accounting for roughly 45% of the minutes played. Mizzou has four freshmen who are currently accounting for 69.4% of the minutes to date. If Mizzou's freshmen play coolly, and win the battle of the youth, the Tigers will be on top. in the end. Particularly if Cullen VanLeer, and more importantly Terrence Phillips and K.J. Walton can clearly win the head to head matchup with the K-State freshmen.
3) the Wesley Chronicles
Wesley Iwundu and Wes Clark are probably the two best and most veteran presences on their respective teams. Clark is the lead guard for the Tigers, Iwundu is the athletic forward for the Wildcats. If the Tigers can limit Iwundu they'll be a half step up. Iwundu has the ability to be a game changer in this matchup, and he absolutely must be kept under wraps. While Justin Edwards has the better numbers to date, Iwundu is the guy that is the difference maker. On the other side of the ball, Clark hasn't really had a breakout game yet. I don't mean from a scoring impact, because Clark has never been viewed as a leading scorer type of player. But he's a creator, and he needs to create.
If the Tigers win this game, they'll likely get the North Carolina Tar Heels, who is coming off a loss to Northern Iowa on Saturday. Bad news is that the Tar Heels would likely be highly motivated to win after that loss. Good news is they're still without Marcus Paige, and they'll be playing their third game in four days. So there could be a bit of a fatigue factor. However, UNC is wildly talented, they just struggle to score at times. However, I also think they have the size to give Missouri fits on the glass. It's hard to see a win if this is the matchup. The Tar Heels are currently ranked 8th in KenPom.
On the other side of the bracket is a matchup with the Northwestern Wildcats. It should be important for the Tigers to win game one, because Northwestern is pretty good this year and probably better than K-State. This is Chris Collins third year on the sidelines and the Wildcats have improved each year under him, and hope to take another big step forward this year with a lot of players coming back. Northwestern isn't quite an NCAA level team at this point, but they could warrant some NIT consideration, and their experience is likely enough to make them a favorite against the Tigers. They're currently ranked 69th in the KenPom rankings.
This is why I think it's important for Mizzou to win game one. Game two, no matter who it's against, is much more likely to be a loss. And this team doesn't want to go 0-2 on this trip to Kansas City, because whatever momentum has been built up in the more casual fans opinion could likely be blown by a team limping out of the Sprint Center at 2-3 with no intriguing home games coming anytime soon. So tonight is important, and for that reason I'm taking the Tigers. I think this is a relatively high scoring game, I'll say 78-75 in the end. I'd like to see Mizzou shoot well early, and put the Wildcats in a hole that their shooting can't get them out of.