KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Kansas was the favorite.
Or maybe Baylor, depending on the preseason poll. A couple of blowout wins in November catapulted Missouri into the top 10, giving the impression that the race for the Big 12 title would be a three-team affair.
Then came Saturday night.
“We may not be perfect,” Kansas State coach Frank Martin said, “but we’re not taking a backseat to anyone, either.”
No. 21 Alabama can attest to that after getting undressed by the Wildcats before a near-sellout crowd of 16,685 fans at the Sprint Center. The 71-58 victory gives KSU a 7-1 record heading to Hawaii for next week’s Diamond Head Classic. Its only loss came in a double-overtime setback against West Virginia on Dec. 8.
“We’re a defensive stop away from being undefeated,” Martin said.
Not many people thought the Wildcats would be in this situation following the loss of third-team All-American Jacob Pullen and standout forward Curtis Kelly. Kansas State returned some experience, to be sure. The issue was whether its complementary players could blossom into stars, into difference-makers.
In the K-State locker room, that was never in question.
“We had the core of our team come back,” guard Will Spradling said. “We had a good core of six or seven players that played a lot last year. [Pullen and Kelly] were only two players, two pieces of the puzzle from last year. It’s not hard to fill that, especially with the players we brought in and how dynamic they are.”
Indeed, freshman Thomas Gipson entered Saturday’s game averaging team highs in points (14) and rebounds (8.1). But against Alabama it was another freshman -- backup point guard Angel Rodriguez -- who provided one of the biggest sparks.
Along with scoring a career-high 13 points, Rodriguez dished out 7 assists and served as a floor leader on a night when Spradling wasn’t at his best because of foul problems and stomach issues that required several trips to the locker room during the first half.
The most impressive part about Rodriguez’s performance was that it came against a Bama squad known for its menacing defense. Instead, it was Kansas State’s stinginess that left the biggest impression Saturday. The Cats forced 18 turnovers and held the Crimson Tide to just 2-of-14 shooting from 3-point range.
With that kind of effort, players such as Rodriguez will continue to see more and more time on the court.
“I’ve never played the type of defense that Coach Frank wants us to play,” Rodriguez said. “It was hard from the beginning. It requires a lot of effort on every single play. I’m getting better.”
Also making a huge contribution Saturday was 6-foot-11 backup forward Jordan Henriquez, who had a career-high 17 points and 8 boards. It marked the first time in more than a month that Henriquez scored in double figures.
“Their bench gave them a big lift,” said Alabama coach Anthony Grant, whose team lost for the third time in four games.
Grant praised Kansas State for maintaining its poise and attacking the Tide’s trademark full-court pressure. That led to some easy baskets for the Wildcats, who used a 13-2 run early in the second half to turn a 35-34 deficit into a 47-37 lead. Alabama never threatened again -- mainly because K-State performed well at the foul line (19-of-26) down the stretch.
KSU shot 63.2 percent from the field after intermission — and 66.7 percent from 3-point range — and Martin said he’s pleased with how his team is progressing offensively.
“It takes a little time,” he said. “It’s not a perfect science. It’s not as easy as it sounds. I know it looks like we just throw the ball out there and run around [in circles], but there’s actually some structure in what we’re trying to do.
“I think if we prepare well ... the game is easy.”
Maybe it felt that way against Alabama, but the Wildcats know things will only get tougher in the Big 12, where as many as three teams (Baylor, Missouri and Kansas) could be ranked in the top 10 in next week’s poll.
Don’t be surprised, though, if the Wildcats work their way into the mix. They’ve finished among the top four in the conference standings in each of Martin’s four seasons.
After Saturday, it appears this one may be no different.