It is a question that fans started asking on the night of Dec. 22 when the then- unranked K-State Wildcats defeated the then-No. 8 Florida Gators: How far can these K-State Wildcats go?
Fans kept speculating when then-No. 25 K-State defeated then-No. 22 Oklahoma State in Bramlage Coliseum for the Big 12 opener. Since then, the Wildcats have lost just three conference games with only one opponent remaining: the No. 13 Oklahoma State Cowboys.
With a win, the Wildcats make history and claim at least a share of their first Big 12 title and their first conference title since 1977. On top of that, they put themselves in position for a possible No. 2 seed in the Big 12 and the NCAA tournament.
“It can be very special. This is the time of year when you need to step up and try to accomplish the things that haven’t been accomplished, and go out and just give it your all,” said senior guard Rodney McGruder. “For me, there is no tomorrow. I can’t compete for another Big 12 conference title.”
For the Cowboys, the game starts with Marcus Smart. The freshman guard sensation has been one of the most consistent players in the country and is often the best player on the court. In the Cowboys’ first match-up with the Wildcats, Smart scored 25 points to lead Oklahoma State.
“[Smart] is such a good player. He is not the fastest guy, but he is tall and just knows how to play. He’s smart, too, so it’s a bigger challenge,” said sophomore guard Angel Rodriguez.
It was a two-man offensive show for both of the teams in their first matchup as K-State saw McGruder and sophomore Nino Williams combine for 45 of the Wildcats’ 73 points. For the Cowboys, junior Markel Brown added 19 points to Smart’s 25.
“Every game, I go in with confidence and ready to play. I was fortunate to make shots that day and had a good game,” McGruder said.
However, it was sophomore Le’Bryan Nash who helped elevate the Cowboys to their third-place spot in the Big 12. Nash, who only had 6 points in the teams’ first meeting, is averaging 18.5 points per game through his last four games.
It came down to a lot of little things for the Wildcats in their first meeting with the Cowboys back in January. K-State’s ability to find the open man for shots instead of forcing up bad attempts was one of the key differences. The Wildcats had 19 assists to Oklahoma State’s six. There was also a difference on the glass. K-State out-rebounded the Cowboys 35-27, including 10-5 on the offensive glass. A big contributor to that figure was Williams, who grabbed four of K-State’s 10 offensive rebounds.
After playing only five minutes against Baylor and not playing against TCU due to injury, junior guard Will Spradling is likely to return for the Wildcats on Saturday. Despite only scoring one point in the first meeting, Spradling is shooting a career-best 40.2 percent from the floor and is the Wildcats’ free-throw shooter. Spradling has a season mark of 88 percent from the charity stripe.
“It’s just tough not being able to be out there and help my teammates; that’s the biggest thing,” Spradling said. “I’m not too worried about coming back. I feel like I’m ready to go now, so I’ll be alright.”
The Cowboys have only two home losses this season, Gonzaga and Kansas. Both teams have beaten the Wildcats. In front of a projected sellout crowd, the Big 12 title will not be an easy grab for K-State.
“We’ve played on the road — it’s not our first game on the road. So we are going to be ready to play,” McGruder said. “I am going to be ready to play.”