The Kansas State men's basketball team currently sits with an 8-1 overall record with their one blemish being an overtime loss against West Virginia. After defeating the #21 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide last Saturday many people are starting to wonder if this Wildcat team is coming together for another strong run under Frank Martin. While there definitely have been some extremely positive signs for the overall future of the program the Wildcat fans should still be somewhat guarded about their expectations for this year.
The first main reason why this team could struggle come conference play is the known fact that they only have one scholarship senior on the roster in Jamar Samuels. Ideally you would always love to have a team of senior leaders who can fight through tough road environments and grind out a victory, this trait is now even more important with the round robin scheduling format of the Big 12. A lack of senior leadership can't simply be underestimated.
To double up on the issue of a lack of seniors is the fact that Samuels simply cannot be counted upon to produce consistently on a game by game basis. Take the Wildcats one loss this year against the Mountaineers, Samuels got into foul trouble and was limited to 20 minutes and only eight points while committing three turnovers. Everyone has been waiting years now for Samuels to take the proverbial next step but it just does not appear that it will ever happen.
Another reason for pause that coincides with the lack of seniors is the fact that K-State is becoming dependent on two true freshman in Thomas Gipson and Angel Rodriguez. In the first few games of the season it appeared that Gipson would be able to provide a bruising force in the paint for K-State, something they definitely need but against Alabama he was somewhat exposed when going against higher level athletes. While Gipson is a strong 6'7" power forward he will have to readjust his game when he starts going up against taller and more athletic players in the conference like Thomas Robinson and Perry Jones.
With Rodriguez it seems the Wildcats have started to respond well as of late to the energy he brings to the floor along with his scoring ability but like any freshman there are concerns. His ball handling and passing sometimes can raise a K-State fans heartbeat and his outside shooting tends to be somewhat streaky at this point in his career. Along with Rodriguez the Wildcats will be entering conference play with their main two ball handlers being a freshman and a sophomore in Will Spradling. It simply remains a wait and see proposition with how Rodriguez in particular will handle the tough arenas in the Big 12.
To throw salt on the wound of having a lack of seniors and relying on freshman is the Wildcats schedule when opening conference play. Currently the Big 12 has three teams ranked in the Top 25 in Baylor, Missouri & Kansas and those three represent the first three opponents for the Wildcats in Big 12 play. The only good news is that two of the games are at home but K-State's first conference game will be against rival Kansas in vaunted Allen Field House. If the Wildcats do start out 1-2 or even 0-3 it will be a tough hole for a young team to dig themselves out of.
Last season the Wildcats started off in disappointing fashion but were able to rebound due to having a superstar in Jacob Pullen but this year's team does not have a bona fide superstar. It was a hope that Rodney McGruder could expand upon his 3rd team all conference season a year ago but so far he has been disappointing. Unless Samuels or McGruder make a mid-season leap this team may need to get off to a strong start or face having their confidence go down the drain.
Even though this season is filled with obstacles there are some major reasons for optimism surrounding this team. The first goes back to the issue of relying on young players, if the freshman and sophomores can develop rapidly it could be a sign of special things in years to come.
In addition the Big 12 as a whole seems to be somewhat down this year with Oklahoma State struggling and teams like Texas A&M, Iowa State and Texas still trying to figure themselves out. If the Wildcats can develop quickly and catch those teams at the right moment this squad could still find itself in the NCAA Tournament in what is essentially something of a rebuild year for K-State.