Texas at Kansas State | Wednesday, 8:00 p.m. CT | ESPN2
Opponent Blog: Bring on the Cats
The Texas Longhorns basketball team (12-5, 2-2) travels to Manhattan to battle the Kansas State Wildcats (12-4, 1-3) on Wednesday night for the second installment of the most challenging six-game stretch any team in college basketball will face this year. Not that the Longhorns should expect any sympathy from head coach Frank Martin and Kansas State, who in Texas are concluding an exceptionally difficult five-game stretch of their own that has them sitting at 1-3 in the Big 12 standings. After going 11-1 in non-conference play against a largely forgettable schedule other than a road win at No. 50 Virginia Tech and a double-overtime loss to West Virginia on a neutral floor, the KenPom No. 21 Wildcats opened Big 12 conference play at No. 2 Kansas (loss), vs No. 7 Mizzou (win), vs No. 8 Baylor (loss), and at No. 72 Oklahoma (loss), and now must try to protect home court against young-but-talented No. 25 Texas.
Like Missouri, the Wildcats are a team Texas will have a solid shot at defeating when the two meet in Austin but who will be extremely difficult to upset on the road. As Kansas State demonstrated in clobbering Missouri to hand the Tigers their first loss of the season, and in getting clobbered by Oklahoma in Norman this past Saturday, the Wildcats are a much more dangerous team at home than when they venture away from Bramlage.
After the jump: Kansas State team and player profiles, as well as keys to the game.
Kansas State Team Profile
Like all Frank Martin teams, these Wildcats are big, physical, and aggressive, but unlike the past two years when Kansas State was also a strong offensive team, after losing Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly the Wildcats look more like a lot of recent Big East teams, succeeding by virtue of their size, stingy field goal defense, strong offensive rebounding, and lots of trips to the free throw line. Despite being a pretty poor shooting team, Kansas State has nevertheless managed to be a relatively effective offensive squad thanks to dominant work grabbing their own misses (42% of them, to be exact, the fifth-best rate in the country) and abundant opportunities to score from the line (their 46% Free Throw Rate ranks 18th nationally).
That's a dangerous combination for this young, undersized Texas team, particularly on the road where the whistles so often favor the host. The Longhorns have steadily improved throughout the year both in terms of defending without fouling and clearing defensive rebounds, and if they excel in both areas on Wednesday night they'll have a real shot at picking off an upset on the road. More likely, however, Texas will have to find a way to overcome lots of fouls and K-State rebounds in order to win the game.
To avoid losing in a slugfest, the Longhorns will need an effective and efficient offensive performance with single-digit turnovers, lots of made free throws, and some timely outside shooting that helps open up the floor. Defensively the Wildcats don't give up anything easily, except for trips to the line (K-State is once again one of the most hack-tastic teams in the nation, with a 40% FTRate) and -- rather surprisingly -- offensive boards (opponets are grabbing 34% of their misses), as Frank Martin's squad once again plays extremely aggressive pressure man defense that forces lots of turnovers and results in poor shooting percentages.
Kansas State Players
Frank Martin lost his top two players (Pullen and Kelly) to graduation, but Kansas State returns three starters from last year's squad, with a roster featuring a balanced blend of newcomers and experienced returnees. Far and away the most important is junior Rodney McGruder (6-4, 205 lbs), a long, slashing wing who compares favorably to Texas' own Sheldon McClellan in terms of make up, and is the only Wildcat who can consistently and effectively create his own look. McGruder can fill it up from the outside when he's shooting uncontested jumpers and is a solid scorer off the bounce, although for a player with his skill set he remains an underachiever in earrning trips to the free throw line, perhaps a hangover from playing two years as complement to offensive engine Jacob Pullen.
Texas isn't likely to shut down McGruder, but the key to beating Kansas State is limiting second chances and the effectiveness of the other players around him, as the Wildcats lack a consistent second scoring option and McGruder isn't quite talented enough to beat you all on his own. Starting alongside McGruder in the backcourt are sophomore Will Spradling (6-3, 170 lbs) and junior Martavious Irving (6-1, 209 lbs), although from watching K-State this year one wonders whether Irvin's days as a starter may be numbered. Although Irving is a strong-bodied and capable defender, he contributes painfully little on offense, without the ability to punish you from the outside and only modest abilities as a creator off the dribble. Spradling, on the other hand, has proven to be a quietly effective offensive player. Although I tend to think he's better suited to play in an off-guard role as he was able to last year with Pullen at the helm, Spradling played the point in high school and has managed to do a capable, if far from dynamic, job running the offense for Kansas State this year. Spradling is a strong outside shooter with a balanced base and consistent release (40% from three this year, 37% as a freshman), and he's a polished player who understands how to effectively use his body and the dribble to navigate the floor.
Frank Martin's guards off the bench are freshman point guard Angel Rodriguez (5-11, 165 lbs), junior Jeremy Jones (6-2, 165 lbs), and redshirt freshman Nino Williams (6-5, 190 lbs). I noted that the Wildcats would probably benefit both from Spradling moving to shooting guard and replacing Irving with a more productive offensive starter, and Angel Rodriguez would address both of those issues. The freshman point guard from Florida is a tough and fearless penetrator who has probably been K-State's most dynamic offensive player off of the bench this year, but following a lousy finish to Kansas State's home loss to Baylor and poor practices in the days that followed, Martin decided to bench Rodriguez for the entire Oklahoma game. Returning to Bramlage for a game against Texas that the Wildcats absolutely must win, it's easy to imagine that Martin's punishment will end and Texas will see Rodriguez early and often on Wednesday night.
As for Jeremy Jones and Nino Williams, neither has been seeing substantial minutes this season, but I expect that Williams is only going to see his minutes increase as this year goes on. Williams is an impressive wing who is athletic, very physical, and a challenge to defend on the bounce without fouling. For that matter, the same may be true of Jones, who in Rodriguez's absence played more minutes against OU himself, responding with 12 first-half points that may earn him more playing time going forward.
Turning to the frontcourt, Kansas State has opened the last three games starting senior Jamar Samuels (6-7, 220 lbs) and junior Jordan Henriquez (7-0, 245 lbs), after Martin decided to bench freshman Thomas Gipson (6-7, 245 lbs) prior the Missouri game. The move paid off, as Henriquez's 10 points, 8 boards and 4 blocks keyed the Wildcats upset of the Tigers in Manhattan, and though he played fairly well against Baylor, Henriquez managed just 8 ineffective minutes against OU, and I'm not sure what his status is for Wednesday night's game. When he's in there Henriquez presents a huge challenge in the paint, where he pounds the glass on both ends of the floor and protects the rim as an outstanding shot-blocker. Jamar Samuels plays more minutes and contributes solid post defense and rebounding, but he's fairly limited offensively other than a valuable ability to rack up fouls on opponents.
Prior to the insertion of Henriquez into the starting line up, Cedar Park, TX product Thomas Gipson was starting, but he's far too turnover-prone and in many ways his profile too closely mirrors that of Samuels -- solid defense, monster on the glass, excellent ability to rack up fouls on opponents -- and Martin has pulled back his minutes as he's tried to diversify Kansas State's offensive capabilities. An increasing number of those minutes are going to sophomore Shane Southwell (6-6, 220 lbs), a versatile small forward who's comfortable with the ball in his hands, is a strong open court player, and a remarkably adept passer, a trait that's carried over from his high school career.
Keys to the Game
Kansas State is not overflowing with elite and/or experienced talent like the top three teams in the conference (KU, Mizzou, and Baylor), but Frank Martin's team remains an incredibly challenging squad to defeat at Bramlage, where the benefits of home court mitigate some of K-State's weaknesses while accentuating their strengths. If Texas is to knock off Kansas State for the first time since the DJ Augustin-led Longhorns defeated the Wildcats in Manhattan in 2008, these are the four big questions that seem likely to define the outcome.
1. How will Texas' guards respond to Kansas State's extreme pressure defense? As John Gasaway of Basketball Prospectus recently put it, "What's most impressive is how K-State has been able to pressure opposing perimeter players as if the Wildcats had an enitre wall of shot-blockers lying in wait down in the paint." Like most every freshman guard, Texas' young perimeter players have struggled to adjust to pressure defense from top-level college athletes, and in that regard Kansas State will present the toughest challenge that these kids have seen to date. We saw Myck Kabongo play well on Saturday at Missouri, but we've yet to see him do that against a team with the size and physical play that Kansas State will present. Likewise, the Wildcats seem an unlikely opponent for Sheldon McClellan to regain his confidence/comfort level against, but Texas really needs both players to attack the defense with poise and purpose.
2. Will Texas make the most out of the opportunities that Kansas State offers? We know that open shots are going to be few and far between, but the Wildcats invite you to draw whistles and get to the line. Indeed, their defensive approach is predicated on that tradeoff -- more pressure, at the expense of committing fewer fouls -- but it's still incumbent upon the opponent to instigate the attacking necessary to draw those whistles. As Missouri found out during their trip to Manhattan, this is not a game with any room for finesse, and these young Longhorns are going to have to engage Kansas State in the slugfest they demand, and convert those fouls into points.
3. Will 'Good Chapman' make an appearance? Frustrating as Clint Chapman's on-a-game, off-a-game pattern has become, Texas fans would be glad for the trend to continue one more game, as the Longhorns absolutely must have a strong performance from the senior forward against Kansas State. The Wildcats are big, physical, and as outstanding an offensive rebounding team as Texas will face this year, and it's incredibly hard to imagine Alexis Wangmene, Jonathan Holmes, and Jaylen Bond holding forth in that frontcourt battle without big-time help from Clint Chapman. First and foremost, he needs to avoid cheap fouls, because Texas probably needs him to play 30 productive minutes to compete for a win. This will be a man's game, and Texas' chances of stealing a win are exponentially greater if the Chapman who showed up in Ames makes an appearance in Manhattan.
4. Can Texas defend without fouling? The need to defend without fouling goes for the whole team, as Kansas State is not only one of the most hack-tastic teams in the country, but one of the most effective at drawing whistles themselves. There's no easy answer here, as challenging Kansas State as they attack has proven to be incredibly difficult to do without drawing fouls -- particularly on their home court -- but that does make it absolutely essential that Texas' minimize, if not completely eliminate, cheap fouls. The Longhorns need to make every whistle count, and Texas can't have any of its three essential players for this match up -- Kabongo, Brown, and Chapman -- riding the pine for extended minutes because of fouls.
PREDICTION: I didn't have much trouble in forecasting a loss for Texas at Missouri on Saturday, but I'm much more tempted to adopt an optimistic outlook for Wednesday night's battle with Kansas State. Because they shoot the ball inconsistently and lack a dependable second scorer, the Wildcats are prone to scoring droughts, and I don't think McGruder has reached the point where he can be counted on to haul a team on his back if need be. That dynamic potentially gives Texas an opening if the Longhorns are able to overcome K-State's pressure defense to produce efficient offense.
For those reasons I like Texas' chances to possibly steal the win if the Longhorns can cross the 70-point threshold, but if both teams are inching their way up the scoreboard, that seems overwhelmingly likely to favor Kansas State down the stretch. And if the Wildcats are playing well offensively, or putting Texas on its heels with foul trouble, the Longhorns could easily find themselves spanked by Kansas State in much the same way as was Missouri.
At least there's a clear and plausible path to victory in this game, which I struggled much more to see prior to our trip to Missouri, but the likeliness of the three scenarios would seem to be, in order of most-to-least likely: (1) slugfest with dozens of fouls, (2) K-State grooving at home, and (3) Texas scoring efficiently throughout the game. Texas would likely win the third scenario, but definitely loses a game where K-State is grooving at home, and probably loses three times out of four in a slugfest at Bramlage. It's not an unwinnable game, but the odds are that Kansas State protects home court. I'll hope for a breakthrough win, but can't talk myself into forecasting it: Kansas State 68 Texas 63