Andy Kennedy, Ole Miss head basketball coach, summed it up pretty well after his team fell to K-State in Bramlage Coliseum last night.
“When you’ve got freshmen, every day’s a learning experience,” he said.
K-State freshmen guards Marcus Foster, Nigel Johnson and Wesley Iwundu had just that – an experience in a gritty, down-to-the-wire 61-58 victory. Just eight games into their college careers, the trio has begun to show the potential to be something special for the Wildcats.
“It was a real gut check,” K-State head coach Bruce Weber said of the game. “We made some strides. I think we really grew up. It was a huge win, no doubt.”
The three made plenty of “freshmen” mistakes, including contributing to a dismal 19-34 showing from the free-throw line. However, when the game was on the line, they got the job done.
Foster is probably the clearest example of this dynamic. Although he locked down the Rebels’ polarizing senior guard Marshall Henderson, he struggled offensively, shooting 5-16 from the field, including 2-6 from beyond the arc. But when K-State was clinging to a 1-point lead with just over a minute to play, he ran off a baseline screen and calmly knocked down a 3-pointer that ultimately won the game.
“My teammates kept me confident, and when coach drew up the play, I knew I’d hit it,” Foster said. “I didn’t even think about it, I just let it fly like there was no one in the gym.”
Kennedy had high praise for Foster after the game. The seventh-year coach, who played for Jim Valvano’s 1987 ACC title team at North Carolina State, compared him to Mitch Richmond, who was a six-time NBA All Star after his career at K-State.
Although Foster stood out, he wasn’t the only freshman to make an impact. Nigel Johnson had 6 points, five rebounds, three assists, and no turnovers in 22 minutes, and Wesley Iwundu pitched in a double-double with 10 points and 10 boards.
“They were very focused, very poised and very mature,” Weber said. “They were guarding older, experienced guards that have played in the SEC and the NCAA tournament, and they locked in. But there’s always progress to be made.”
Weber couldn’t have been more spot-on with that caveat. The Wildcats have a brutal schedule ahead of them in the Big 12. Ole Miss is a solid team, but they don’t hold a candle to the likes of Kansas and Oklahoma State, both ranked in the top 10 in the AP poll.
It’s clear that K-State has quite a ways to go if they want any shot at defending last year’s conference title. Fifty-five percent from the line won’t cut it. Neither will a 12-15 assist to turnover ratio, or 36 percent from the field.
All that aside, the young Wildcats made some significant progress against Ole Miss last night. Even this early in their college careers, Johnson, Iwundu and Foster are starting to look like something special for K-State.