Saturday turned insane late, and for reasons only tangentially related to basketball. But before that, it was a pretty standard day of basketball. Boring, even. There weren’t many great games, and there weren’t many big surprises, and thus Kansas State’s 74-57 win over Texas was one of two or maybe three notable exceptions.
Whatever the context, Kansas State’s thorough demolition of the Longhorns changes the stakes for Monday night’s home game against in-state rival Kansas (9 p.m. ET on ESPN/WatchESPN). Actually, that’s not quite accurate: This is Kansas State hosting Kansas in The Octagon of Doom, so the stakes are a constant. But K-State's win over Texas does change the outlook. After a few weeks of mostly mediocre output, the Wildcats suddenly look more than capable of downing the Jayhawks.
This has a lot to do -- first things first -- with Kansas State freshman Marcus Foster. Foster was almost perfect Saturday: He shot 8-of-8 from 2 and 5-of-8 from 3 for 34 points against one of the 15 or 20 best defensive teams in the country. It was a breakout game for perhaps the nation’s most under-the-radar freshman, and just in time for Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid to come to town.
Foster is unlikely to have quite as easy a time against the Jayhawks, and not just because it’s impossible to replicate a 34-points-on-16-shots tour de force like the one he just submitted. Kansas is, probably even as you read this, spending a great deal of its time focusing on how to play Foster with one and sometimes two defenders, to deny the ball on Bruce Weber’s motion screens, and to force the action into the hands of Kansas State’s supporting players. It’s likewise safe to assume Wiggins will draw the Foster assignment for whole swaths of the game, and Wiggins -- who is as quick as any guard but is 6-foot-7 and scary-athletic -- is a nightmare matchup for an undersized perimeter.
So that’s an interesting thing to watch. But more likely, the game will turn in the paint, where both teams truly excel.
When you score 1.17 points per trip in conference play, as Kansas has, you’re usually doing a lot of things right. The Jayhawks are. They lead the league in 2-point field goal percentage (55.6) and, somewhat surprisingly, in 3-point accuracy (41.8). But that latter figure is mostly a product of shot selection. The Jayhawks don’t shoot many 3s -- just 27.9 percent of their field goals come from beyond the arc -- so the shots they do take come with a special level of consideration. The only thing Kansas doesn’t do particularly well is handle the ball: The Jayhawks are still turning it over on 20.2 percent of their possessions in league play. But when Kansas doesn’t turn it over, and especially when it gets the ball near the rim, it typically scores.
The lone exception? An 81-69 loss at Texas on Feb. 1, when the Jayhawks scored just a point per trip and had 12 of their shots blocked by the Longhorns.
Kansas State’s defense, meanwhile, is the best in the Big 12 to date. It is holding opponents to the lowest combined field-goal percentage, and the lowest 2-point field-goal percentage. In half-court sets, according to Hoop-Math.com, Kansas State opponents attempt just 30.7 percent of their shots at the rim. More frequently -- nearly 40 percent of the time -- K-State opponents have to settle for shots in the sub-optimal midrange, where they shoot just 30.3 percent. Good perimeter defense starts the process, while rotations by Shane Southwell and Thomas Gipson help seal off the paint. Good shots rarely result.
The Foster-Wiggins-Embiid freshman wow factor might dominate discussion of this game, and that’s fine: Foster deserves that attention. But the Jayhawks’ trip to Bramlage Monday night is most likely to be won or lost based on if and how Kansas gets the ball to the front of the rim. Kansas State’s defense may just have a surprise in store.