The K-State men’s basketball team left Stillwater, Oklahoma three weeks ago in despair. They faced a three-game losing streak, their star guard was benched and people were already calling the season a failure.
How quickly things can change in the Big 12.
The Wildcats persevered when they needed to, and played then the upset role all the way up the conference standings. There are no moral victories in sports, but their performance against Iowa State Tuesday was enough to quiet the doubters.
Now, K-State returns to face the Cowboys as a much different team. Oklahoma State, too, isn’t the same. With the Big 12 as unpredictable as it’s ever been, fans are in for another treat Saturday.
Here’s who has the advantage and how the two teams matchup:
Front court: K-State
Senior forward Thomas Gipson was up and down during the nonconference season. He was in foul trouble, often out of position and not the wrecking-ball force we’ve seen in recent years.
That all changed once conference play started. “Big Gip” is averaging 10.5 points per game against Big 12 foes. He’s been dominant underneath, scoring against much taller opposition and helping draw fouls. When Foster has been benched, Gipson has been the go-to force. He’s fueling an offense that still isn’t deadly, but is chugging along.
Then there’s Nino Williams, who has been arguably the best player for the team all season. In K-State’s last two games, Williams dropped 18 and 22 points. His production has been huge, but so has junior forward Stephen Hurt’s. Hurt still isn’t providing the big numbers offensively, but he’s had spurts here and there where he’s been a dominant big man.
Against Oklahoma State, K-State should have the advantage underneath. Hybrid big man Michael Cobbins stands at just 6 feet and 8 inches for Oklahoma State. Gipson has been going up against much taller guys all year, so expect a big performance for the K-State senior.
The Cowboys do have two 7-footers on the bench in Marek Soucek and Anthony Allen Jr., but neither are averaging above 2 points per game.
Back court: Oklahoma State
Even after losing Marcus Smart to the NBA, Travis Ford’s Cowboys have picked up right where they left off in the back court.
Phil Forte III is following up on a stellar sophomore year, averaging more than 17 points and two rebounds a game through 18 games this season. Anthony Hickey Jr. is closing in on a double-digit scoring average too, and junior guard Jeff Newberry has contributed well, including 10 points against K-State earlier this season.
Oklahoma State is a well-oiled machine when it comes to guard play. K-State, on the other hand, is still piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. It’s coming together, but it’s not quite there.
Sophomores Wesley Iwundu and Jevon Thomas have emerged as consistent contributors on both sides of the ball. Iwundu’s height frustrates scorers, while Thomas’ ability to penetrate and kick has added a new dimension to the K-State offense.
Still, Oklahoma State has the experience. The Cowboys have it pieced together now, while K-State remains a work in progress. Advantage goes to the visitors.
K-State X-Factor: Wesley Iwundu
Opposing Big 12 coaches have raved about Iwundu. He’s lanky, athletic and present in every phase of the game.
Iwundu seems poised to take that next step in his game where coaches speak more to his playmaking ability rather than just his hustle or athletic ability.
Against the Cowboys in Stillwater, Iwundu had 0 points in 33 minutes. Zero. Since then, the sophomore has averaged 7 points a game. He’s been more aggressive at the basket and isn’t passing up open looks from behind the arc.
He’ll need another solid outing to lift K-State back into the win column.
Oklahoma State X-Factor: Michael Cobbins
Cobbins isn’t a scorer. That’s not his game. Even as a senior, he’s averaging just 6.7 points per game. However, in Oklahoma State’s five losses this season, Cobbins is averaging just 4 points per game.
Like Gipson for K-State, Cobbins is undersized as a hybrid center. He’s typically matched up against players with at least 3 inches on him. But when he plays well, Oklahoma State plays well.
Cobbins will have his hands full with the big frames of Gipson and Hurt. If he’s unable to get going early, expect Oklahoma State to be at a major disadvantage down low.
Best matchup: Nino Williams vs. Le’Bryan Nash
Arguably the two best players on the court. Similar yet different play styles. Both on hot streaks. This is a matchup to keep your eyes on.