Nothing was expected from Kansas State this year. Jacob Pullen and his somewhat renowned beard are long gone, and in the preseason the Wildcats were picked to finish sixth in a new-look 10-team Big 12.
That prediction now needs revisiting. Frank Martin's team is 11-1, and indeed if not for an incredible performance by West Virginia's Kevin Jones in the Mountaineers' double-OT win in Wichita on December 8, Kansas State would be 12-0 right now. How did we not see the Wildcats in the preseason? Can Martin's team continue their surprising run in a very strong Big 12? Let's take a look at those questions....
K-State's better than expected because the defense is.
There's been talk around Manhattan this season of better ball movement and of the Wildcats vexing opposing defenses with a new-look multi-pronged attack, but the truth is this offense is no better or worse than it was last year. (Note for example there's no "true" point guard this season. The best candidate for that label, 5-11 freshman Angel Rodriguez, comes off the bench and is still getting a handle on his turnovers.) Instead if you're looking for the source of Kansas State's success this season, you should listen to Jamar Samuels.
Apparently Samuels has a future as an analyst if this whole playing thing doesn't work out, because the 6-7 senior's been quoted as saying that the Wildcats' defense is as good as it's ever been. He's right. K-State's defense is much improved over last year. This season quality opponents (those from the nation's top 14 conferences) have made just 44 percent of their twos and 24 percent of their threes against this defense. What's most impressive is how K-State's been able to pressure opposing perimeter players as if the Wildcats had an entire wall of shot-blockers lying in wait down in the paint. In truth seven-foot junior Jordan Henriquez is indeed an outstanding shot-blocker, but he's on the floor less than 20 minutes a game. Nevertheless the Cats defend and harass on the perimeter as if Anthony Davis has their backs on every possession. If Martin's team didn't foul as often as they do, opponents might never score.
Thomas Gipson is Kansas State in a nutshell.
On paper Gipson is merely K-State's No. 4 scorer, but in truth he's as likely to shoot during a given possession as any other Wildcat. His points are limited only by his minutes (23 a game). Gipson's an absolute monster on the offensive glass and he draws seven fouls for every 40 minutes he plays, but he shoots just 51 percent at the line. In all of the above -- the offensive boards, the ability to draw fouls, and the shaky free-throw shooting -- Gipson is a useful one-player representation of Kansas State. And while it'd be easy to fault the strangely inaccurate two-point shooting (47 percent) of a 6-7 player who virtually inhales offensive rebounds, we should probably see this glass as half-full. Gipson was an unheralded recruit coming out of high school, yet here he is more or less the focal point of a top-25 team's offense. If Martin keeps transforming unheralded recruits into key performers, he'll attain Bo Ryan-level credibility in this department.
The Wildcats excel at drawing fouls.
In effect Martin plays a rotation that goes eight deep, and no fewer than five of those players draw at least four fouls per 40 minutes. Samuels and Gipson each draw more than seven. Even an unprepossessing physical specimen like 6-2 sophomore Will Spradling, nominally the Wildcats' three-point specialist, draws four fouls per 40 minutes. (Note to Division I: the offensive impact of a good three-point shooter who can also draw fouls is pretty scary. Encourage that "pure" shooter to hurl himself into the nearest defender on occasion.) Basically if you can't draw fouls you don't play in Manhattan. It's true that the effectiveness of this approach has been limited by K-State shooting just 67 percent at the line as a team. Still, the Cats are commonly facing opposing defenses that are in some degree of foul trouble. As a result those defenses often play cautiously and hesitantly -- exactly what a blue-collar offense like Martin's wants and needs.
Frank Martin: system coach.
Martin's tenure at Kansas State has been undeniably successful, but I can't help but think that the factors behind that success have been somewhat misunderstood. For one thing he started his head-coaching career as "Bob Huggins' former assistant," and he happened to have a certain player named Michael Beasley on his first roster. Then came Pullen and his beard, and it seemed like the do-it-all guard from Chicago was forever winning games in the most dramatic fashion imaginable. It was easy for observers to think that Martin was merely as good as his players. But I think Martin is actually what people admiringly term a system coach.
The Frank Martin system is one that makes perfect sense for any team that's working at a talent deficit relative to its opponents (as the Wildcats will be this season when they play the top teams in the Big 12). K-State is hardly the last word in accuracy from the field, but they make opponents shoot even worse and they get to the line even more often than the other team. Play defense, draw fouls, crash the offensive glass. That's how the Wildcats win games.
Martin says the "challenge with this team has been immaturity" and that they're "good against the good teams and not so good against the average teams." So I suppose it's a good thing in Martin's eyes that K-State's performance against "average" teams is now entirely irrelevant. The Wildcats' next three games line up like this:
No worries about "immaturity" occurring as a result of that schedule.
When Martin said "The greatest empires of all time have always been defeated from within, not from the outside," he was talking about his team and the importance of focusing on the task at hand. But he might just as well have been talking about his team's conference. At the time of the Big 12's greatest apparent peril as a conference -- already down to 10 teams; about to say goodbye to Texas A&M and Missouri, and hello to West Virginia and TCU -- the league might just have its most exciting title chase in years.
The Jayhawks, Tigers, and Bears are all ranked in the top 20 nationally, and Texas is, as always, loaded with young talent. Meanwhile Kansas State is turning heads in its own right. Keep an eye on the Big 12 and especially on Kansas State the rest of the season. Both the league and the team are exceeding expectations.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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