On Monday afternoon (4:30 P.M., ESPN), the #15/#12 Missouri Tigers (15-3, 1-2) play host to the #21/#20 Kansas State Wildcats (13-5, 1-2), in Big 12 action. Kansas State is coming off of a 94-60 home win over Texas Tech. Missouri comes home after an 89-91 OT loss at Texas A&M.
Coach Frank Martin's Wildcats were the pre-season pick by many to win the conference, but have experienced some difficulties thus far this season, including the suspensions of their two best players, in pre-season All-Conference selections, Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly. Both have returned to action, and Kansas State is ready to right the ship. But, 6'10" junior F Freddy Asprilla has left the team, to return to his native Colombia.
There's good reason that Kansas State was picked to win the conference, and was ranked as high as they were early in the season. Even with the loss of sometimes starter, and key reserve, Asprilla, the Wildcats' roster is still loaded. They are big. They are talented. And, they are deep. On Saturday, after the Wildcats' shellacking of Texas Tech, Coach Martin talked about getting his team back to full strength, and headed in the right direction.
"(Today), we got our team back," said Coach Martin. "If you've watched us close for the last three years, (the way we played today) is how we play. We attack people. We run. We share the ball and that is what has made us a good team....................... We just needed to get back to doing things our way and that is what we did today. I enjoyed the heck out of the team that played this afternoon."
One thing that Coach Martin's team has done all year is rebound the basketball. The Wildcats are out-rebounding opponents by 10.3 rebounds/game, which ranks 5th in the NCAA.
As Colorado Coach Tad Boyle said, after his Buffaloes had beaten the Wildcats, "If you're going to have a chance against K-State, you'd better get on the boards. Because if you don't, they're going to embarrass you."
Kansas State is also very good on the defensive end. They are forcing opponents into 17 turnovers/game, and have held opponents to 40% FG shooting.
The Wildcats are led in scoring by 6'0" senior G Jacob Pullen (17.9 points/game, 4 assists/game). Pullen's adapting to playing with the ball in his hands, as opposed to playing off of the ball, as he did a year ago, when he had now departed Denis Clemente as his sidekick. Pullen's 3-PT FG% has suffered, and the easy buckets haven't come as often for the Wildcats.
With just returned 6'8" senior F Curtis Kelly (10.4 points/game, 4.1 rebounds/game) having missed several games due to suspension, 6'4" sophomore G Rodney McGruder (12.2 points/game, 7 rebounds/game) has emerged as Pullen's primary support, and Kansas State's most efficient player. McGruder is also K-State's best outside shooter, hitting 44% from beyond the 3-PT arc.
Another key component for Coach Martin's team is 6'7" junior F Jamar Samuels (10.3 points/game, 6.1 rebounds/game). And, 6'6" freshman G Shane Southwell has just moved into the starting line-up for Kansas State.
Coach Martin's most utilized bench player is 6'1" sophomore G Martavious Irving (5.9 points/game), who is making 37% of his 3-PT FGAs. Four other players that Coach Martin can bring in off of his bench have started games for Kansas State this season, including 6'3" freshman G Will Spradling (5.4 points/game, 39% 3-PT FG%, 86% FT%), 6'9" sophomore F Wally Judge (6.4 points/game, 4.4 rebounds/game), 6'4" sophomore G Nick Russell (4.6 points/game, 27% 3-PT FG%), and 7'0" sophomore F Jordan Henriquez-Roberts (3 points/game, 3.7 rebounds/game).
Kansas State is physical, and will really get after it defensively. The Wildcats will want to play fast.
For Missouri, the absence of their trademark defensive intensity has been the limiting factor for the Tigers this season. At times, Coach Anderson's crew approaches the requisite defensive intensity. But thus far, the Tigers have failed to consistently play with the necesary defensive mindset. It appears to me that, in order for the Tigers to realize their potential, Coach Anderson will have to redistribute the minutes among his back court players.
The work horse for the Tigers is 6'2" junior G Marcus Denmon, who leads Missouri in scoring, with 17.7 points/game, and is Missouri's best back court player. A pair of 6'8" junior forwards, Laurence Bowers (11.9 points/game, 6.3 rebounds/game, 2.3 blocks/game), and Ricardo Ratliffe (11.8 points/game, 7.1 rebounds/game), provide Missouri with a formidable inside duo. The Tigers are also getting good production from 6'1" sophomore G Michael Dixon (10.8 points/game, 4.8 assists/game).
Missouri currently ranks 5th nationally in scoring, at 85.8 points/game. The Tigers' turnover margin of +6.2 ranks 3rd in the NCAA. And, Missouri ranks 6th nationally in both assists (18.4 assists/game), and in steals (10.2 steals/game).
"Our kids are playing pretty good basketball," said Coach Anderson, as he looked ahead to Kansas State, and the rest of the season, following his Tigers' loss at A&M. "This team's going to be reckoned with, when it's all said and done. You've got to remember, it's still a young basketball team, from an experience stand point. And so, some of the mental breakdowns that we're having, hopefully here in the next few ball games, we can clean some of those up. But, if we get the kind of effort (that we did at A&M), each and every night, we're going to be happy a lot of nights."
This is a 'must game' for both teams, each of whom find themselves backed into a corner, after a 1-2 start in the conference.
Missouri Kansas State
FGM: 562 480
FGA: 1175 1083
FG %: .478 .443
3pt FGM: 138 133
3pt FGA: 360 348
3FG %: .383 .382
FTM: 276 266
FTA: 386 453
FT % .715 .587
Points: 1538 1359
Per Game: 85.4 75.5
Reb./Gm 37.5 41.6
Steals 9.8 6.6
Assists: 18.1 15.5
Blocks: 5.8 4.5