It is an overused sports cliche to suggest that a particular team is reeling, but what the hell, let's say it. The Texas Longhorns are reeling. Rick Barnes' squad is currently 3-6 in conference play, having lost four straight games.
Making matters worse, Texas will play Kansas State this Saturday without Jonathan Holmes, who did not travel to Manhattan after suffering a concussion in the second half of Texas' last game against Oklahoma State. Javan Felix -- who was held out against the Cowboys with a concussion of his own -- did travel with the team, but it is not certain if he will play.
Kansas State has its own troubles. The Wildcats are struggling through a disappointing season of their own, and have lost four out of their last five games. Making matters worse, the Wildcats will again play without their best player -- Marcus Foster -- who has been suspended indefinitely by coach Bruce Weber for violating team rules.
There were dumb writers in the off-season who suggested that Kansas State was a serious threat to challenge for the Big 12 title. That hasn't exactly happened, in part because Marcus Foster hasn't progressed any after his outstanding freshman season, several of his fellow sophomores have regressed, and the Kansas State defense has taken a serious step back this year.
When Texas has the ball
Part of the reason for K-State's defensive regression very well may be plain old boring reversion to the mean. (Sorry, but as always this is a narrative-free zone.) The Wildcat D last season was so successful in part because of poor opponent three point shooting percentages, and as the laws of probability play out this season Kansas State opponents are shooting very close to the NCAA average from beyond the arc.
However, Weber's defense still will pressure passing lanes, and forces plenty of turnovers. For the Texas guards, finding a way to take care of the ball will be critical. A characteristic of the Kansas State defense is that it makes it very difficult to run plays. The Wildcats will pressure ball handlers, deny passes, and generally have opponents' offensive actions well-scouted.
All of this means that Texas guard Isaiah Taylor will need to create some of his own offense on Saturday. Kansas State is susceptible to dribble penetration, and isn't particularly adept at protecting the rim. This is a perfect game for Rick Barnes to space the floor and send Taylor on the attack. I would advocate an approach similar to the one taken against West Virginia, where Texas spent most of the game in attack mode, rather than setting up offensive sets.
When Kansas State has the ball
Without Marcus Foster, the Wildcats will have to look to another player for points. In their this week without Foster, Weber's team was rocked by Texas Tech, and struggled to get buckets. Foster is K-State's most serious perimeter shooting threat. Without him in the lineup, junior Justin Edwards and freshman Tre Harris are the most likely Wildcats to fling it from deep.
Weber's best offensive options are senior wing Nino Williams and senior big man Thomas Gipson. Williams is having an outstanding senior year. He scores in a variety of ways, but is most dangerous cutting to the rim. He has a great feel for cutting to the hoop, and has no problem finishing once he gets there.
Texas fans are of course familiar with Gipson, who seems to have spent the last decade playing for Kansas State. Gipson is an exceptional scorer in the low post, combining power with soft hands and nice touch around the rim. He is physically overwhelming, and just knows how to play.
Joining Gipson in the front court is sophomore Wesley Iwundu, who at 6-7 and 205 lbs looks even leaner than he is next to his 265 lb teammate. After a promising freshman year, Iwundu's second season has not gone well. He is struggling on offense this season, having trouble shooting and turning the ball over.
Another Wildcat with turnover problems is Kansas State point guard Jevon Thomas. One out of every three possessions that end with the ball in Thomas' hands have resulted in a turnover this year. Thomas is quick, with a knack for getting to the free throw line, but his career 45 percent free throw shooting percentage means that he does a lot less to hurt teams there then he should.
While Texas coach Rick Barnes has been rolling out zone defense at some pretty inappropriate times (see the Baylor and Iowa State games), if he wants to mess around some in 2-3, Kansas State might be the opponent to do it against. Without Foster, Weber doesn't have many shooters. The biggest danger for a zone defense will be losing track of Williams and Gipson along the baseline.
Ah, the hell with it. I have never advocated for zone in my life, and I am not about to start.
What can we expect?
I have given up on trying to predict what will happen with Texas from game to game. And this matchup seems even more difficult to predict than usual, with two struggling teams each missing a critical player.
Texas' track record in the Octagon of Doom hasn't been particularly good in recent seasons. The Longhorns haven't won in Manhattan since 2008, although to be fair that takes us back into the years where the Big 12 was organized into divisions and trips to play Kansas State only happened every other season. Caveats aside, Kansas State has been a tough place to play generally.
My hope for this game that Rick Barnes keeps things simple on Saturday, and turns Taylor loose. He is the best player on the floor, and his style of game is particularly suited for hurting the Wildcats. The Kansas State defense is no fun to play against when you try to run your offensive actions, but it can be beat off the dribble, and will likely struggle to contain a guard as dynamic as Taylor.