Starting in July, I began writing previews of each basketball team in the Big 12, proceeding in reverse order of how each team finished in the standings last season. I am now halfway through, having covered TCU, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, and Baylor. While it is too hard to predict the actual order that teams will finish, it would not surprise me if the bottom five teams last season stay in or near the bottom five again.
I say this because the top five returning Big 12 teams from last season all appear very likely to be very good; any of them could conceivably win the league. Kansas always expects to win the league, and with good reason. Oklahoma returns virtually all of the key players from last season, and if transfer TaShawn Thomas receives his waiver to play immediately, the Sooners could be an even better team then they were last year. Texas returns virtually its entire roster, and adds a high school All-American big man. Iowa State will still be good, despite the loss of seniors DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim. Georges Niang returns with a phalanx of three point shooters, and UNLV transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones is likely to be coach Fred Hoiberg's latest physically overpowering perimeter player who is a match-up problem for the 6-2 180 lb defenders he will face.
Which brings us to Kansas State. I have learned my lesson on Kansas State. Two years ago Blake and I picked Kansas State to finish sixth in the conference. The Wildcats finished in a tie for first. Last year I picked Kansas State as the eighth best team in the Big 12 prior to conference play. The Wildcats finished fifth, and were a fair bit better than I anticipated.
I am not going to make this mistake again. This will be a very good team.
Two Approaches to Defense
We can usefully divide man-to-man defenses into two categories. These categories are defined by where off-ball perimeter defenders who are one pass away from the ball play. The basic question every coach must answer when setting up a defense is this: do I play in the passing lanes, or play in the gaps?
While I have written about this before, I thought it might be helpful to briefly review this before diving into the Kansas State defense.
Some defenses put perimeter defenders who are guarding a man one pass away from the ball into defensive gaps. Essentially, these players sag off their man towards the basket, which limits penetration opportunities for the opposing ball handler. The photo below shows the Virginia defense defending the gap in this way. Virginia's defense is exceptional. Arizona, one of the favorites to win the national title this season, also plays this way. Among the teams of the Big 12, Iowa State is the program that is perhaps most devoted to defending in the gaps.
Gap defending defenses tend to result in some very predictable outcomes when they are well run. Gap defenses allow relatively little dribble penetration. They give up a low number of offensive rebounds, in part because weak-side rebounders don't have to help defend against penetrating guards as often, and are thus in better rebounding position. This is part of the reason why undersized Iowa State teams are always so good at defensive rebounding, and why Butler's two Final Four teams were so good on the glass despite lacking overwhelming size.
The trade-off in playing gap defending defense is that it tends to force fewer turnovers. (This is in part why I am so fascinated by the Florida approach of paring a gap defending half court defense with full court pressure; it seems to give the best of both worlds.) Additionally, gap defenses are less disruptive. When you defend this way, you basically are conceding ball reversal on the perimeter, and allowing your opponents to run their offense more or less how they choose to.
As an alternative, a coach can chose to put his defenders in the passing lane, as shown below. This changes the situation for the offense, as ball reversal is not something that can be taken for granted. It makes running offensive sets more difficult, and turnovers more likely. It also creates more room for dribble penetration. The photo below should make the differences clear.
Kansas State coach Bruce Weber has generally adopted the more pressure-oriented approach to half court defense. Wildcat defenders play in the passing lanes, and focus on disrupting opposing offenses.
Kansas State's Exceptional Defense
Last season, the Kansas State defense was rated as the No. 18 best in the nation per Ken Pomeroy's ratings. During the high scoring Big 12 regular season, the Wildcats allowed 103.6 points per 100 possessions, which was only one point higher than was allowed by conference leader Kansas.
It is hard to find a single sequence to illustrate all of the elements that made K-Sate's defense so good. But one thing we can illustrate pretty easily with a single sequence is just how disruptive Coach Weber's men could be on the defensive end of the court.
To show this, I had a lot of examples to chose from; I selected one short sequence from early in Kansas State's beat down of the Texas Longhorns in Manhattan last year. It starts in the image below, with Texas setting up a familiar action to Longhorns fans, a staggered screen out of their secondary break.
After dribbling the ball up the floor, the ball has been reversed to Demarcus Holland. Isaiah Taylor and Jonathan Holmes are preparing to set a staggered screen for Martez Walker. This is an action that has been well-scouted, and the Wildcats are ready.
As Walker comes off the first of the two screens, we reach the image below. Walker and Taylor's defenders (in this case Will Spradling and Marcus Foster) switch defensive responsibilities, which effectively neutralizes the first phase of the staggered screen. Foster then positions himself in such a way as to make it very difficult for Holmes to set a screen on him, effectively anticipating the screen and beating his man through it.
Foster maintains solid defensive position, and Texas' offensive action is neutralized. But more than just taking away a chance at a shot, Foster chases Walker all the way out to near mid-court, denying ball reversal, as we see in the image below.
This image is very important to understanding the Kansas State defense. Against a ball-denying pressure defense like this, set plays and offensive actions are difficult to execute. Teams need to beat a defense like this by attacking off the dribble, just as Tom Penders would probably advise (based on his comments about how to beat another ball-denial defense):
To beat Duke you have to take them off the dribble. They play your plays well. They jam your plays well but they have trouble off the bounce— Tom Penders (@TomPenders) March 30, 2013
Part of what makes the K-State defense so effective is the individual defensive ability of its perimeter players. All the good things that Kansas State does pressuring the passing lanes wouldn't be nearly as effective if the Wildcats were easy to beat off the dribble. Despite playing such aggressive defense, K-State opponents only logged 35 percent of their shot attempts at the rim last season, which is better than the national average of around 37 percent. The previous two seasons the Wildcats limited opponents to fewer than 31 percent of their attempts at the rim.
(The K-State defense's increase in the percentage of shots it allowed last season at the rim when compared with previous seasons followed a nationwide trend. A higher percentage of shots were taken at the rim last season across D-I than any season that I have tracked this number. It was a big jump across D-I, increasing from 34 percent to 37 percent. Perhaps some of this is due to a reinterpretation of the block/charge rule.)
K-State was quite young last season, with only two seniors who were major contributors: Shane Southwell and Will Spradling.
Marcus Foster had an exceptional freshman year. Foster is Weber's primary ball handler, and in that role he does quite well, protecting the rock and making plays for his teammates. Additionally, he had an outstanding year shooting the ball, connecting on just under 40 percent of his 200 three point attempts. Foster plays at both ends of the floor, and has a reasonable chance of making the All-Conference team. Foster even was mentioned briefly during Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander's podcast as a darkhorse All-American candidate. That is unlikely (I don't think Parrish or Norlander would argue otherwise), but I do agree that Foster is poised to have an outstanding year.
Foster is joined in the backcourt by fellow sophomores Nigel Johnson and Jevon Thomas. Johnson had a solid if unspectacular freshman year, while Thomas struggled, despite flashing some real ability. Thomas' struggles boiled down to some typical freshman turnover troubles, which will eventually go away, as well as problems finishing around the rim, which may be linked to the fact that he is kind of small.
Also likely to play heavy minutes is junior transfer Justin Edwards, who sat out last year after averaging nearly 17 points a game playing for Maine. Edwards is a terrific athlete -- finishing near the hoop won't likely be a problem. But he is a career 27 percent three point shooter, so unless he has significantly improved his shot, he isn't likely to threaten teams from the perimeter.
He may not be able to shoot, but he can do this.
Bruce Weber also returns big man Thomas Gibson. He is a load, and I mean that as the highest complement I can give a big guy. Gibson is one of the few players in the league so strong that Texas center Cameron Ridley could not move him, and he is a nice scorer around the basket who last year also connected on 70 percent of his free throws.
As good as Gibson was last year, he will have some competition for minutes along the front line, pushed by both a returning sophomore and a transfer. Sophomore Wesley Iwundu may weigh 60 or 70 pounds less than Gibson, but the 6-7 Iwundu has some game. As an athletic floor-running big man, he is a nice complement to Gibson. Iwundu has talent, and it will be interesting to see what an off-season in a college strength training program has done for him.
If that isn't enough up front for Weber, he also added 6-10, 265 lb junior college transfer Stephen Hurt. Hurt played his freshman season at Lipscomb. It was an outstanding freshman year. As a freshman, Hurt rebounded 24 percent of opponents' missed shot attempts (which ranked 53rd nationally among qualifying players at kenpom.com), and grabbed 12 percent of his teammates' misses. He got to the free throw line, scored inside, averaged more than 11 points per game, and was his team's best player. Then he spent a year at a junior college in Florida before transferring to Kansas State.
With Gibson and Hurt inside, no one will push around the Kansas State front line this year.
Kansas State also returns 6-5 senior Nino Williams, who was an effective player both on the glass and as a scorer in limited minutes last season.
And then there is 6-8 freshman Malek Harris. A four-star recruit per 247 and Rivals, the highlight videos online show a player who likes to drive the basket, has a good handle, and can pass. He will be a 6-8 wing, and will have the chance to make an impact catching the ball coming off screens in Weber's offense.
I have no idea who will win the Big 12, but if Kansas State ends up conference champions, I won't be the least bit surprised. This team is going to be good. Kansas State has a lot working in its favor: a top lead guard, size in the front court, athletic players all over the floor, and a coaching staff that routinely runs out some of the best defenses in the nation. The next bad defense that Bruce Weber puts together will be his first, and given the players on this squad, that first won't be this year.
If there is a worry for the Wildcats, it might be the potential lack of perimeter shooting. Outside of Foster, Weber returns no outstanding three point shooters from a season ago. But this is a team that will be good enough at everything else that it can likely cover for this apparent weakness.
But I wouldn't worry to much about this. With a top talent in Foster, along with depth and size, Kansas State will be tough to beat.