Kansas State was, like Saturdays opponent Iowa State, not expected to be a factor in the Big 12 title race coming into the season. And like Iowa State, they've proven far more competitive than they were given credit for after a hot start to league play. K-State is coming off their first loss of league play against TCU, 14 point loss on the road after a 4-0 start. That 4-0 start included hanging 116 on Texas in Austin, and 97 on Baylor in Waco. Those are incredible offensive numbers, but it’s worth noting that Texas still put up 103 while Baylor scored 95, so while K-State was scoring at will, their opponents were too.
That might lead you to believe that this KSU team is unbalance and very offense-heavy, but their season-long analytics disagree. KenPom has them at the 36th rated offense and 40th rated defense, while Bart Torvik’s T-Rank has them 35th and 41st respectively. That paints a portrait of a team that is very good, though not great, on both sides of the ball. For that reason, it may make sense to think of their high-flying shootouts against Texas and Baylor as aberrations. Going back further, they’ve had six games this season in which they were held to less than a point per possession, including games against some weaker teams, and won four of them, holding opponents to well under 1 PPP. The season as a whole shows a team capable of going off for big scoring numbers while unable to do it consistently, and capable of very good defensive performances with several very poor ones to balance them out.
Offensively, K-State doesn’t shoot a ton of threes but is a solid, if unspectacular, 35.1% from deep. They’ve been a bit better inside the arc where they hit 53.1%. If we look at conference play only, they rank third in both categories, hitting 37.2% and 52% respectively. It’s not a dominant shooting team, but it’s efficient. Their offensive rebounding has been similarly just above average, as is their 36% free throw rate. Defensively, they’ve been atrocious on the boards in Big 12 play, allowing opponents to grab 36.5% of their misses. Overall they rank 201st in that category, so it’s clearly just not a strength. They also have a habit of fouling a lot, ranking 279th nationally in opponent FT rate, and 8th in the Big 12 through league play so far. Their two point defense has also been pretty mediocre against Big 12 teams, though compared to all of D1 basketball they’ve been just above average. The portrait painted through five league games is a team that got hot offensively and saw their numbers start to drop on the other side of the court. Is that a function of two games with wildly aberrant scores, or a team finding a new identity? It’s tough to say for sure right now, especially coming off a game against TCU in which they played poorly on both ends.
In terms of personnel, there are really two names to know: Markquis Norwell and Keyontae Johnson. Nowell, a senior point guard, stands just 5’7, but it hasn’t stopped him from playing like a potential 1st team All-Big 12 player. He’s scoring over 17 points per game this year with an incredible 44% assist rate, while keeping his turnovers fairly low. His usage rate is 26% for the year, and over 27% in league play. He’s hitting 38.2% from three and racks up quite a few steals, so size aside, he’s got the potential to cause problems on both ends of the court for Dajuan Harris and Bobby Pettiford. Johnson became unfortunately famous in December 2020 when he collapsed on the court as a Florida Gator. He was coming off a 1st team All-SEC season, and was eventually cleared to play late last season. It took him a little while to find his groove with K-State, but he’s clearly found it, scoring 28 and 24 against Texas and Baylor, and leading the team in scoring for the year. He’s shot poorly from the arc in Big 12 play, just 3-1 5(20%), and 25.5% for the year, but he does a lot of damage as a slasher, getting into the lane. He’s hit 62.5% of his twos on the year, a fantastic number for a high volume wing, and routinely gets to the free throw line where he hits 74% of his shots.
K-State has more than two good players, but Norwell and Johnson are what make this team go. Kansas has a solid answer for Norwell in Harris, and some combination of Kevin McCullar and Jalen Wilson will likely be assigned to Johnson. I am a bit concerned that Johnson can get one or both in foul trouble as he attacks the basket early and often. If that happens, it could lead to some less than ideal lineups for Kansas, including the potential for more of the Harris-Pettiford combination at the 1 and 2 that creates issues for the Jayhawks offense.
Though new head coach Jerome Tang said yesterday in his press conference that he would like to see K-State fans stop letting KU get under their skin, you can bet that the Octagon of Whatever will be filled with fans screaming for blood tonight. It will be a hostile environment, and being in Manhattan, KSU will likely get a couple of extra foul calls when attacking the basket. Kansas is the better team, and K-State doesn’t have any particular strength that really scares me, but if KU shows any sign of the offensive trouble that plagued them against ISU (granted a much better defensive team than KSU), I can see K-State scoring some points in bunches and making it tough for Kansas to stay on top. I think the Wildcats will accomplish the one goal they cling to every single season, which is to beat Kansas once in basketball.
Kansas State 78, Kansas 70