Those of you that were around the site last March might remember that I had a rather vested interest in the performance of the Kansas State Wildcats, so I'm pretty familiar with their style and personnel. If you don't remember much about them from last season's beatdown in Manhattan, Kan., here's a little scouting report on the nation's No. 5-ranked team -- sneak preview: they're probably not the fifth-best team in America -- before Friday's tipoff.
In terms of style, the Wildcats are going to most remind you of the hated Huskies. They say teams take on the personalities of their coaches, and with Frank Martin at the helm, aggressive is the best word to describe Kansas State. They like to play fast (averaging more than 70 possessions a game, 36th most nationally), and if that means getting a little reckless at times, so be it -- they're going to do everything within their power to push the tempo every chance they can get.
Any coach will tell you that playing fast is more a function of what you can do on defense than offense, and that's certainly the case with Kansas State. They play a fun brand of basketball to watch in which they apply extreme ball pressure on the perimeter designed to accomplish two goals.
First, they'd like to generate a turnover -- they're currently 38th nationally in opponents' turnover percentage after ranking 24th a year ago. The interesting thing is that they don't do it with steals -- the Wildcats were just 115th last year in steal percentage. A lot of what they do results in poor passes that end up out of bounds, traveling violations and offensive fouls from trying to take advantage of perceived advantages after getting past the perimeter defense.
The problem is, once you get past those guards, there are trees waiting in the lane. This is the second goal of their ball pressure: KSU is blocking nearly one out of every 10 2-pointers their opponents take and undoubtedly altering far more. Basically, they're trying to bait opponents into getting out of control with the ball.
What's this mean for WSU?
First, and most obviously, the Cougs have to take care of the ball -- something they didn't do last year when they turned the ball over an absurd one out of every three times down the floor. That's been generally excellent this year, but we haven't seen a team even close to what KSU can do. If Reggie Moore plays, will he be sound with the ball, or will he be rusty or have problems with the splint? If he doesn't, can a combination of Marcus Capers and Klay Thompson do enough to avoid handing the ball over to the Wildcats?
Second, this is a game where the midrange jumper could play a huge role. The Cougs have proved exceptionally adept at that shot this year with Thompson and Faisal Aden leading the way. With great pressure on the perimeter and shot blockers waiting around the basket, the 15-footer can be a powerful weapon.
Third, penetration is paramount. Everybody needs to be aggressive to the basket, because if K-State can't block your shot, they're most likely going to hit you. They sent opponents to the free throw line at an alarming rate last year -- 314th nationally in opponents' free throw rate. Their defensive efficiency had a +.36 correlation to opponents' FTR, which isn't terribly strong, but is higher than you'll normally see.
And that's why I see one major thing working in the Cougs' favor: This game is at WSU. The Wildcats feed off the energy of an excellent home crowd (you might remember that from last year), and being the aggressor there seems to get them the benefit of a lot of calls. KSU has played seven games: Five at home, two a two-hour drive away in Kansas City. This is their first real road test, and I'd say that's to WSU's benefit. The officials will likely dictate the tone of this one, and I'm sure they'll be of the west coast variety (read: no physical play allowed).
Offensively, the Wildcats love to shoot -- 35.5 percent of their shots are 3s, 117th nationally. Jacob Pullen is a potential all-American, and he's good. He does a little bit of everything, but he's a great shooter first and foremost. For those of you who watched the Portland game, you'll remember Jared Stohl. Pullen is like Stohl but with the ability to drive. Expect Capers to get this assignment, too. How efficiently Kansas State is able to score will likely hinge an awful lot on how well Capers does shadowing Pullen. If Capers is able to stick with him without a lot of help from teammates, that will prevent Pullen from simply dishing to open teammates when he drives.
The other reason KSU will resemble UW to many of you? They crash the offensive glass with abandon -- even more so than Washington. They were 6th nationally in OR% a year ago, picking up four out of every 10 of their own misses. In fact, when KSU's guards penetrate, they often will just throw it up in the hopes that a rebounder is left unboxed (is that a word?) out when the weakside help rotates to contain penetration. DeAngelo Casto, who often likes to try and block every shot taken, will have to be especially conscious of this. With a rowdy crowd expected at Beasley, he'll have to keep his emotions in check and play a smart game tomorrow.
This is a game the Cougs can win. But they're going to have to do some things we know they can do but maybe haven't shown enough of this year to do it. Honestly? I think their best chance rests in the referees calling a tight game. If they can get K-State out of what they do best -- fluster their opponents by harassing them physically -- much of KSU's physical advantage melts away, as many of their players aren't particularly skilled.