Ready or not, conference season begins tonight for Shaka Smart and the Texas Longhorns, as the 6-6 ‘Horns take on the Kansas State Wildcats in Manhattan. After limping through the non-conference season, finishing with a surprising home loss against Kent State on Tuesday, Texas will see the degree of difficulty get increased with a trip to the Octagon of Doom.
The Wildcats come into league play with an overall record of 11-1. Note that this record hasn’t been compiled against the most robust schedule — K-State’s lone contest against a top-100 team in the kenpom.com rankings was a one-point loss to Maryland.
But while Bruce Weber’s team hasn’t measured itself against the toughest of competition just yet, what they have done is beat the snot out of just about everyone on their schedule. The Wildcats have so far this season outscored opponents by 18 points per game, and thus have found themselves ranked 30th in the Pomeroy ratings. (As of this writing, Texas is ranked 77th, by far the lowest ranking in the Big 12.)
Kansas State is a balanced squad that is strong at both ends of the floor. Weber is giving the bulk of the minutes to seven players.
In the back court, sophomore guards Kamau Stokes and Barry Brown are off to a good start as sophomores after struggling as freshmen. Both guards are shooting the ball from the perimeter — note that this does not set them apart from the rest of the Wildcats, who have collectively connected on 39 percent from three-point range so far this year. Senior Carlbe Ervin comes off the bench to back-up both Stokes and Brown.
On the wing, Weber returns 6’7 senior Wesley Iwundu. Iwundu is a versatile forward who is an excellent defender, a steady passer, and a strong finisher near the basket. He has also shown an increased willingness to put the ball up from beyond the arc this season. Iwundu is a key playmaker for K-State, sharing much of the ball handling duties with the Wildcat guards.
Iwundu will also rotate inside when Weber goes with smaller lineups, which makes additional minutes on the wing available for 6’5 freshman Xavier Sneed. Sneed is a dynamic offensive player, averaging 10 points per game while playing only 20 minutes per game. He has done it both around the basket — Sneed is converting an excellent 71 percent of his layups and dunks — and from three-point range, where he has converted on 39 percent of his chances this season.
Perhaps the most talented Wildcat is 6’10 sophomore Dean Wade. Wade is following up his impressive freshman campaign with a strong second season. With his fellow sophomores able to carry more of the load on offense, Wade is better able to pick his spots. He can score from all over the court, and is adept spotting up from beyond the arc as well as making plays from the post. Additionally, Wade is an active offensive rebounder that the Longhorns will have to be focused on keeping off the glass.
Playing alongside Wade in the front court is senior DJ Johnson, who is having an excellent final season in Manhattan. Johnson is the Wildcats’ leading rebounder, shot blocker, and is second on the team in scoring. His offense comes in the low post, on dump downs, and on the offensive boards. And he is the key rim protector (alongside Wade) anchoring a defense that has limited opponents to 39 percent shooting from two-point range.
The Kansas State defense will challenge the Texas guards by applying pressure to passing lanes. If recent history is any guide, the Wildcats will have the Longhorns well-scouted, and will be ready to jump most of Texas’ offensive sets and actions. And this aggressive defense will be supported by Johnson and Wade at the rim.
The ‘Horns will have to hit some perimeter shots and find a few opportunities in transition to have a chance to put together a decent enough offensive game against this tough half-court defense. Meanwhile, Texas will have to contain Kansas State’s multiple perimeter shooters and several solid scorers inside.
It is just another night on the road in the Big 12. The game tips off at 7 p.m. CT, and airs on ESPNews.