SCOUTING THE WILDCATS
As befits a 5-0 team, Kansas State features a balanced lineup with a wide array of talents. The Wildcats aren't particularly tall, as they feature just one player in the rotation that stands taller than six feet, seven inches, but they are a rangy, athletic and attacking bunch who have put up excellent defensive numbers and scored enough to reel off five consecutive victories.
On the front line, a pair of forwards average in double digits. Freshman Thomas Gipson provides the build and inside strength, tallying 12.0 ppg and 7.0 rpg. At 6-7 and 275 pounds, he's tough to move out of the post, and he takes advantage of good positioning to score in close. Like several of his teammates, he also gets on the offensive boards, grabbing 13 of his 35 total rebounds off Wildcat misses. Senior Jamar Samuels is nearly as productive, putting up 11.0 ppg and 6.5 rpg. He's coming off a Big 12 player of the week performance in which he averaged a double double. His only negative is that he missed the first two games of the season due to a suspension, but he hit the ground running on his return.
The subs up front are just as talented as the starters. Shane Southwell averages 7.6 point and 4.0 rebounds per game while playing nearly as much time as Gipson and Samuels. Jordan Henriquez, at 6-11 the tallest Wildcat, comes off the bench to average 8.8 ppg and 8.6 rpg, and also leads the team with 18 blocked shots, good for the #9 ranking in the nation. Combined, the four players give Wildcat head coach Frank Martin an excellent rotation.
At guard, the only shortcoming is shaky shooting, but there has still been enough scoring to offset that problem to date. Sophomore Will Spradling averages 12.0 points in nearly 29 minutes per outing, and is the team's chief three-point threat (8-21) on the year. He's an excellent free throw shooter who drives and gets to the line with regularity. Junior Rodney McGruder nearly matches Spradling with 11.8 ppg, and is a physical player who gets to the boards and gives the front line more help inside. He actually has more offensive rebounds (15) than defensive (13) and must be accounted for when shots go up on the offensive end. His shooting percentages are low, however, and his ballhandling is a bit suspect. Junior Martavious Irving moved into the playmaker role this year and has done well, posting a 2-1 assist to turnover ratio while chipping in 7.5 ppg. Like McGruder, he has struggled shooting the ball this season.
Off the bench, Angel Rodriguez has provided the most backcourt minutes, tallying 16 per game. He's been mostly a defensive and minutes filler, however, as he has also been fighting to find his shooting range.
Kansas State is a team that plays intense defense, has up and down shooting percentages and is right at the break-even mark in assists to turnovers. It has a fiery, intense coach who doesn't tolerate mistakes. Sound familiar?
Of course, it comes as no surprise that the teams are similar, what with Martin, a Bob Huggins protege, running the Wildcat program for the fifth season. Both would obviously like to have better shooting teams, but both espouse tough, hard-nosed defense, rebounding and intense play as the keys to victory, so the fact that the two teams have similar styles and stats is to be expected. While the squads aren't mirror images, the similarities are enough to make this an intriguing match-up. Will one team impose its will on the other, winning the battle of the boards and creating enough pressure to cause mistakes, or will another factor come into play?
Intrust Bank Arena
WVU 4-2, 0-0
Kansas St 5-0, 0-0
Kansas State 1-0
WVU - 109
Kansas State - 24
The first item to watch is the battle of the boards. It's priority one with both coaches, and it should be exciting to watch. WVU's Deniz Kilicli vs. K-State's Gipson should be a strength-on-strength fight, while Mountaineer Kevin Jones and Samuels figures to be a contest of savvy and guile. Of course, they won't be matched up against each other on every shot situation, but they will be the key figures in the conflict for board supremacy.
With both squads working to find shooting rhythm, the team that simply "makes shots", in the words of Huggins, should have an advantage. Obviously, that's the case in any game, but in a contest between teams that have had trouble scoring at times, it's going to be doubly important. Three-point shooting, in particular, will be under the microscope, as the squads have each made just 27 treys this season.
Ball protection and pressure defense will also figure heavily in the outcome. WVU has five players who have already compiled double-figure turnover marks, and while the Wildcats have spread theirs more evenly across the roster, neither squad has been great at keeping the rock under control. Both are likely to apply pressure, so an eye toward steals and transition baskets will also be important.
Finally, an overlooked aspect of team defense could be another big factor. As part of that emphasis, taking the opponent out of what it wants to run is a key factor for both coaches. Watch the offenses, and keep track of how many times they must reset due to a play breaking down, and how many times they have to rush to get a shot off at the end of possessions. These events often signal that the defense is stopping its opponent's pet plays and sets. That, in turn, often leads to rushed shots and poor shooting as well -- and could provide the path to victory. Against Mississippi State, WVU was unable to stop the Bulldogs set offense -- and as a result, MSU got a number of open shots and easy drives to the basket. A repeat of that performance will equal another road loss for the Mountaineers.
Freshman center Pat Forsythe had a solid stretch of play against Mississippi State, scoring four points and securing four rebounds in 15 minutes of action. Those aren't huge numbers, but other aspects of his play were noticeable. Forsythe hit the boards hard, especially on the offensive end, and helped keep the ball in play even when he wasn't able to grab it. He also passed the ball well from the high post, and kept the offense moving when the ball came to him. Thirteen of his 19 rebounds have come on offense, and he has just three turnovers in 67 minutes to date.
It's still to early to say that Forsythe has arrived, or that he's secured a spot in the rotation, but his play against WVU's toughest foe to date shows his promise. If he is able to continue with that level of performance, West Virginia will be much better in the front court for the remainder of the season.
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Kansas State will be playing its first regular-season neutral site game in the city of Wichita since playing in the NCAA Tournament
in March 1968. The Wildcats have never been the host team in the city, as it has played 14 times against Wichita State and
four in the NCAA Tournament at Levitt Arena.
The last regular season game in Wichita came in a 79-66 win over the hometown
Shockers at the Kansas Coliseum on Dec. 7, 2002. The Wildcats are 7-11 in those 18 games. It will be West Virginia's first game ever in the state of Kansas.
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West Virginia is an even 6-6 against Big 12 teams in its history. WVU has never played Big 12 members Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas or Colorado (now departed to the Pac 12).
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K-State has had trouble getting started this year, but has rallied in the second half with strong finishes to stay undefeated. The Wildcats are averaging just 30 points per game in the opening half, but have scored 44 per contest after intermission. Shooting percentages, both from the field and the free throw line, have also gone up drastically in the second half.
While K-State has won its games by an average of 16 points, it has trailed twice at halftime (Charleston Southern by 14 and Virginia Tech by 6) and has been involved in several other close games before pulling away down the stretch. While that points to some uneven play by Frank Martin's troops, it has also provided them with the confidence to play and win in tight situations.