Ranked third in the 2010-2011 preseason polls, the Kansas State Wildcats failed to live up to the lofty expectations last year. They lost four of their first five Big XII games but were able to pull it together at the end of the season before bowing out in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. This year, Kansas State goes back to being an under the radar team.
The main challenge for head coach Frank Martin will be replacing the heart and soul of last year?s team, Jacob Pullen. No one Wildcat will be able to replace Pullen?s production so it will be a team effort.
Rodney McGruder is the top returning scorer from last season and was also the team?s best 3-point threat. He will start at one wing spot and likely take over the responsibility of being the go-to scorer. Martavious Irving, Will Spradling, and Shane Southwell were all contributors a year ago and should take on bigger roles this season.
Spradling is a scrappy player who will take over the point guard duties but also can shoot the ball from deep. Southwell and Irving will compete for the final starting spot on the wing. Southwell started 17 games last season as a freshman and though he did not put up eye-popping numbers, offers more size and length. St. John?s transfer Omari Lawrence also figures to work himself into the regular rotation while redshirt freshman Nino Williams and newcomers Jeremy Jones and Angel Rodriguez will scrap for whatever minutes are leftover.
The frontcourt is undergoing somewhat of a face lift due to the graduation of Curtis Kelly, and the transferring of Wally Judge and Freddy Asprilla. Jamar Samuels will likely be the second banana to McGruder which is not exactly an encouraging sign. He does have a nice combination of strength and athleticism but struggles shooting the rock. Jordan Henriquez-Roberts looks the part in the middle and has shown flashes of being an intimidating presence in the paint, but lacks the consistency and nightly fire to be a difference-making big man. Staying out of foul trouble has also been an issue and Kansas State will need him to become a steadier contributor.
Depth on the inside is a concern for Martin. Victor Ojeleye is the only returning player and has seen limited minutes during his three years in Manhattan. JUCO transfer and former Washington State Cougar James Watson brings more size to the floor than Ojeleye and should be the first post player off the bench. Freshman Thomas Gipson is a big body down low while Adrian Diaz relies on his length and athleticism. Both newcomers will try to find minutes off the bench.
The Big XII will not be as top heavy as it has been the past couple of years since Kansas and Texas both lose a lot from last year. Still, the Wildcats need to finish in the top five of a ten-team conference to ensure a spot in the NCAA Tournament. For that to happen, Samuels and McGruder will have to take over the leadership and scoring roles while the remaining cast plays their part. Martin will have to do a spectacular coaching job this season which is not out of the realm of possible, but certainly won?t come easy.
Player to Watch: Will Spradling, PG
I really liked what I saw from Spradling during his freshman season; not as much as Bob Knight did but I am not sure Spradling?s own parents are as fond of their son as Knight is. He didn?t play like a freshman point guard last season which bodes well considering he will become the primary ball-handler.
Key Non-Conference Games:
12/1 vs. George Washington
12/4 at Virginia Tech
12/8 vs. West Virginia
12/17 vs. Alabama
12/22 vs. Southern Illinois (Diamond Head Classic)
12/23 vs. Clemson/UTEP (Diamond Head Classic)
12/22 vs. Xavier/Long Beach State/Auburn/Hawaii (Diamond Head Classic)