Key Returners: Everyone
Key Losses: Amaad Wainright
Key Newcomers: Austin Trice (JUCO), Shaun Williams
Outlook: For those of you that drive cars with black, leather interior, you know the perils of leaving it parked outside in the baking hot sun. What was previously a comfortable, room temperature driver’s seat has now transformed into a scalding hot bed of molten lava.
This is the agony I imagine Bruce Weber felt every time he sat down in his office chair for the past few seasons at K-State. Under fire from a growing pitchfork mafia of fans who wanted him ousted, Weber desperately needed an ice cold seat cover in the form of a meaningful postseason run to silence the naysayers – amazing what a difference a couple weeks in March can make...
Despite losing Dean Wade - the Wildcats most versatile offensive weapon - in the Big-12 tournament, Weber rose to the occasion in the Big Dance, delivering three straight masterful coaching performances to propel K-State to its first Elite 8 appearance since 2010. The Wildcats leaned on their suffocating defense to escape past Creighton and UMBC in the opening weekend before stunning Kentucky and Big Blue nation in the Sweet-16.
It may be a stretch to claim those 120 minutes of basketball saved Weber’s job, but it certainly turned down the pressure cooker to a much more comfortable level – though, now is no time to exhale. With seemingly everyone back from that magical run in March, expectations will be juiced up even higher as the K-State faithful salivate at the thought of potentially dethroning their arch nemesis’ perpetual conference title run.
As dominant as the Wildcats' defense was during that Elite-8 run, there's no reason to think that dominance can't be replicated in 2019. K-State has produced the 25th, 33rd and 21st overall ranked defenses over the past three seasons, respectively, which has been built on relentless, in-your-face pressure that extends far beyond the 3-point line. Spearheading the perimeter havoc will once again be Barry Brown and Kamau Stokes who, along with Wade and wing Xavier Sneed, each posted individual steal rates that ranked in the 80th percentile nationally - put these together and it explains how the Wildcats finished with the nation's 3rd highest team steal rate, which was tops in the Big-12. With Brown, Stokes, Sneed and Wade all near locks to start this season, the Wildcats should once again boast once of the most disruptive perimeter defenses in America.
Behind that first line of defense, Weber had his hands tied with a rail thin frontline last year, forcing him to roll the dice with a relatively unknown JUCO newcomer, Makol Mawien, as the primary interior enforcer. So, how did Mawien respond? Welp, Weber 'sharpie-d' him into the starting lineup all year long as Mawien ascended into one of the premier shot-blockers in the Big-12 - though, his inaugural season in D1 basketball was far from flawless. Hacking habits kept Mawien in foul trouble far too often and he was, oddly, just a pedestrian rebounder – a microcosm of a defect that's haunted Weber and the Wildcats over the last three seasons.
Instead of banking on improvement from within via Mawien and other incumbents (Levi Stockard and Nigel Shadd), Weber went out and grabbed one of the most sought after prizes on the JUCO circuit, Austin Trice. Despite standing just 6’7, Trice gobbled up every missed shot in sight last season for Wabash Valley College and his 12.1 rebounds per game ranked 4th best amongst all eligible NJCAA players. Trice’s coach at Wabash, Mike Carpenter, encapsulated the player that Trice is in a nutshell, which appears to be just what the doctor ordered for Bruce Weber:
“[Trice] loves to rebound; that’s what he loves to do,” Carpenter said. “And he loves to dunk the ball. Those are two things he does well. So he tries to dunk everything around the basket and he goes and chases down rebounds and runs the floor.”
At minimum, Trice will serve as a formidable option to spell Mawien off the bench if / when Mawien finds himself in foul trouble, along with the aforementioned Stockard and Shadd. How the minutes are allocated amongst these four will be determined by - amongst other factors - how well they complement 'Mr. Mismatch' Dean Wade on the other end of the floor.
Wade was actually the Wildcats best defensive rebounder on a per possession basis last year, but his bucket getting ability is what truly makes him special. He’s a complete scorer and a willing facilitator whenever Weber opts to play through him in the high, mid and low-post areas. Now fully healthy entering his final year in Manhattan, the red carpet is rolled out for Wade’s senior encore after a breakout junior season that drew comparisons to Chandler Parsons’ best season at Florida.
Wade will always be the focal point of opposing scouting reports, but a rapidly improving supporting cast should keep defenses from sending multiple bodies at him every possession.
Among those other cast of characters, Cartier Diarra is a lesser discussed actor who deserves more ink for his steady play. Much like Mawien, Diarra got his moment in the sun last year when he was asked to step into the starting lineup on two separate occasions: 1) after Stokes got hurt during the early portion of Big-12 play and then again 2) when Wade went down late in the season. Diarra injected some much needed shooting to the everyday lineup, connecting on 41% of his triples which ranked 2nd only to Wade on the team. He’s an invaluable asset for a K-State squad that is starved for consistent 3-point shooting - but if he wants to challenge the incumbents for a full-time position in that top-5, he’ll need to become a more well-rounded guard and credentialize himself as a reliable 2nd or 3rd ball handler to Brown and Stokes. Mike McGuirl should also work his way into the backcourt rotation, who was the unsuspecting hero in K-State's opening round victory over Creighton.
*Hot take alert*: Barry Brown mayyyy be the best two-way guard in the Big-12. Positionally, Brown is technically a 1 / 2 combo guard, but he's slowly morphed into the Cats primary ball handler and playmaker over the past two seasons for Weber (though some of that has to do with Stokes’ injury). Brown has continued to polish his dynamic offensive skillset, evidenced by the significant uptick in his 3-point shooting accuracy in conference play last year (38%). Adding a consistent jumper to an already dangerous scoring arsenal makes him a legitimate Big-12 Player of the Year candidate this season, especially when you factor his unrivaled impact as the ‘head of the snake’ for K-State’s stout defense.
Bottom Line: It’s fair to say that the Wildcats’ preseason hype could be rooted heavily in the recency bias stemming from the Elite-8 run – a run in which they drew 16-seeded UMBC in the 2nd round and waltzed to the Sweet-16. But with this type of roster continuity, everyone is already well-acclimated to their role and what’s expected of them heading into the 2018-19 campaign. It’s hard to find a real weakness on either side of the ball, other than maybe interior depth – but even that crack should be patched up this season with the addition of Trice and one more year of development from Mawien, Stockard and Shadd. All that’s really left is for the Wildcats to go ‘walk the walk’ and prove that what we saw for a couple weeks in March was not a fluke, but rather, a precursor for what’s to come in 2019…