Going into Big 12 conference play, the Kansas State Wildcats were 7-6 and looked as if they were doomed to be buried towards the bottom of the conference standings for the remainder of the season. With losses to average-at-best teams such as the Texas Southern Tigers and the Pittsburgh Panthers, there didn’t seem to be much hope for the Wildcats this season.
However, coach Bruce Weber‘s squad has put together an impressive opening stretch in conference play and currently sit in third place in the conference standings at 4-2 (11-8 overall). In this stretch, the Wildcats have enjoyed wins over top 25 opponents and potential Big 12 contenders such as the Oklahoma Sooners and the Baylor Bears. The Wildcats also took the No. 9 Iowa State Cyclones to the brink on the road before falling to the Cyclones, 79-71.
How did the Wildcats change their luck so quickly? It starts with an improved defensive effort. Prior to the beginning of conference play, the Wildcats were holding their opponents to 64.9 PPG with an average of 45.7 percent shooting from the field and 34.8 percent from three-point range. All of these marks put the Wildcats towards the bottom of the conference rankings.
In conference games, however, the Wildcats have been holding their opponents to 61 PPG on 41.1 percent field goal shooting and 32.4 percent from three-point range. These marks have helped establish the Wildcats as one of the better defensive teams in the Big 12 since the beginning of conference play.
Kansas State has also been handling the ball much better in conference play. After coughing the ball up an average of 14.5 times per game in non-conference play, the Wildcats have cut the number 12.5 per game. This improvement has helped the Wildcats gain an even turnover margin, which takes away a big advantage opposing teams had over the Wildcats in non-conference play.
The final, and perhaps most important, factor in the Wildcats’ recent success has been the improved play of guard Marcus Foster. The sophomore had a bit of a disappointing start to the season; he struggled to consistently shoot the ball and tended to disappear in games when things weren’t going well. However, Foster has been more consistent as of late and has taken on more of a leadership role.
In a close game against the Sooners, Foster hit a floater to send the game into overtime, then he hit the go-ahead three-pointer to seal the win for the Wildcats. Although many players, such as forward Nino Williams, have contributed to the Wildcats’ recent success, Foster’s emergence as a fearless leader has been crucial.
Given their rough start to the season, the Wildcats still have plenty of work to do if they want to make the NCAA Tournament. However, if they can keep up the level of play they’ve been producing in the last six games, they will certainly be in consideration. They still have plenty of tough competition to face, and they will have to the majority of those games to boost their questionable tournament resume. However, the Big 12 is going to a dogfight this season, and the Wildcats have proven they’re tough enough to give themselves a shot.