MANHATTAN — With Kansas State’s bid to win a Big 12 regular season championship fading, Jerome Tang is looking to shift the Wildcats’ focus to a more pressing and modest goal.
Not only is outrunning four other teams and erasing a two-game deficit with only five remaining now a shot, but as Tang pointed out after the Wildcats’ disappointing 79-65 loss in Oklahoma Tuesday night, they need to be concerned about the qui and now.
“We have to win at least two more games to get to the NCAA Tournament,” said Tang, whose No. 1 Wildcats. 14 returned home to the Bramlage Coliseum on Saturday for a 1pm game against no. “And this was my message to them, that we have to figure this out, because we have to win two more games to have a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.
“And that was one of our goals.”
K-State enters the Iowa State game at 19-7 and tied for fifth place in the Big 12 at 7-6. The Cyclones (17-8, 8-5) are one game ahead of the Wildcats and one game behind co-leaders Kansas, Texas and Baylor.
In the span of less than a month, K-State has moved from a top 5 country ranking to dreams of a possible #1 seed. 1 NCAA Tournament to internal conversations about securing a spot on the court. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi still has the Wildcats listed as the #1 seed. 4, no doubt based on the strength of the Big 12, but they’re clearly heading in the wrong direction with four losses in their last five games and five in their last seven.
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“In this industry, you have kids who do drafts, and they put a kid’s name on a draft, and kids read it and think they’re going to be drafted,” Tang said. “What they don’t realize is that none of the draft board guys draft.
“And so it’s the same thing with the bracket. There are these guys out there who say some teams make the NCAA Tournament. But none of those guys pick teams for the NCAA Tournament.”
That said, the Wildcats remain well positioned over the past two weeks. They still have only one defeat at home and with the next two games against Bramlage they have the chance to turn the tide.
Iowa State did just that Wednesday night by shutting out TCU at home, 70-59, after losing four of their previous five. But K-State’s problems appear to run a little deeper.
“It’s going to take some internal things that we need to fix, as far as joining more,” said K-State point guard Markquis Nowell, who has seen his 3-point shooting percentage and assists drop dramatically and his turnovers soar during the Wildcats’ recent slide. “To bond and do the things we used to do when we were winning.”
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The Wildcats had opportunities to make up ground on the road in the final week with games against last place Texas Tech and Oklahoma, and didn’t play well in either. Could it be that opposing teams have cracked the code on how to defend K-State and especially top scorer Keyontae Johnson and Markquis Nowell?
“Everyone is being explored right now,” Tang said. “And the teams are doing a great job of charging our two best players, and we need to do a better job of manipulating the defense to help them be a little more effective.”
While Johnson continues to lead the Wildcats in scoring with 17.5 points per game and rebounding at 7.5, he has only hit his season average once in his last eight games. Nowell, in the last stretch of five games, is 9-of-42 on 21.4% from 3-point range with 28 turnovers to 24 assists.
“I have to block a little more. I have to shoot the ball with confidence,” Nowell said. “And no matter what, I’ve done a lot of work before and after training. I just have to trust and believe in every shot.
“And I play a lot for points, so I feel like I have to move and play off the ball a lot. And I have to do defense every time they double, which means getting the ball out faster.”
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It didn’t help that starters Cam Carter and David N’Guessan were both shut out offensively at both Texas Tech and Oklahoma. N’Guessan was limited to two minutes due to illness at OU.
Tang’s biggest concern stemming from the Oklahoma game was what he perceived as a lack of commitment from the Wildcats. But he also expressed confidence that they could recover their bravado.
“This is disappointing, but it’s not daunting,” he said. “We’ll figure this out, because we have really good guys in that dressing room, and they care. The care factor is high.
“Everyone is going through different things at different times. Like nobody cares that David is sick, and nobody cares that this person is dealing with that and the other. And so those are just things that you have to work on, and it does part of being in America’s best league and having a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.”
Arne Green is based in Salina and covers Kansas State University sports for the Gannett Network. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @arnegreen.