2016 men’s basketball season preview

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Freshman forward Xavier Sneed dribbles the ball down the court during the K-State game against Washburn in Bramlage Coliseum on Nov. 4, 2016. (Miranda Snyder| The Collegian)

The Kansas State men’s basketball team kicks off the season tonight against Western Illinois. In honor of the new season beginning, we take a look at who left, who’s back and who’s new. And we even make some predictions.

Who’s gone

The Wildcats were a mixed bag last year. At times they played great, like when they upset No. 1 Oklahoma in Bramlage Coliseum, and at times they played horribly, like when they lost to Oklahoma State in overtime in Stillwater, Oklahoma. They only won two road games all season, finished eighth in the Big 12 and ended their season in a blowout loss to Kansas in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament.

Statistically, the Wildcats lost their best player in Justin Edwards. Edwards led the team in points, rebounds and steals last year. The Cats also lost big man Stephen Hurt and Brian Rohleder as well as then-freshman reserve Ron Freeman.

Who’s back

The Wildcats return a nucleus of talent. Seniors Wesley Iwundu and D.J. Johnson will be relied on to lead this team, which they are more than capable of doing. Iwundu did it all for the Cats last year and has worked on his shot this summer in hopes of being a more complete player. Johnson came on strong in the last month or two last season; he scored in double figures in eight of the last 12 games.

Iwundu and Johnson will have plenty of help around them. Head coach Bruce Weber said senior Carlbe Ervin II has been one of the most improved players on the team. Sophomores Dean Wade and Barry Brown, who were Big 12 All-Newcomer Team members last year, return as well. And sophomore Kamau Stokes will be back from an injury that sidelined him for the latter part of last season.

Who’s new

The Wildcats have a bunch of new faces on this season’s team, including four true freshmen and two redshirt freshmen on scholarship.

The true freshmen bunch is headlined by forward Xavier Sneed. Sneed was the Wildcats’ top recruit, according to Rivals, and he played well during the Cats’ trip to Italy and in their first two exhibition games.

On the other hand, both Cartier Diarra and James Love III will be unavailable for the Cats due to injuries. Diarra’s return for the second half of the season hasn’t been ruled out, but Love III will be sidelined for the whole year and will be redshirted.

How the two redshirt freshmen perform will be huge, in both size and importance. Six-foot-10-inch forward Isaiah Maurice and 7-foot forward Dante Williams will bring a much needed inside presence on the defensive end.

2016-17 Schedule with predictions for each game

Nov. 11 vs. Western Illinois — W

Nov. 15 vs. Nebraska-Omaha — W

Nov. 20 vs. Hampton — W

Nov. 22 vs. Robert Morris — W

Nov. 25 at Boston College — W

Nov. 26 at Maryland or Richmond — L

Nov. 30 vs. Wisconsin-Green Bay — L

Dec. 3 at Saint Louis — W

Dec. 6 vs. Prairie View A&M — W

Dec. 10 at Washington State — W

Dec. 17 at Colorado State — W

Dec. 21 vs. Gardner-Webb — W

Dec. 30 vs. Texas — W

Jan. 3 at Kansas — L

Jan. 7 vs. Oklahoma — W

Jan. 10 at Texas Tech — W

Jan. 14 vs. Baylor — L

Jan. 18 at Oklahoma State — L

Jan. 21 vs. West Virginia — W

Jan. 24 at Iowa State — L

Jan. 28 at Tennessee — W

Feb. 1 vs. TCU — W

Feb. 4 at Baylor — W

Feb. 6 vs. Kansas — W

Feb. 11 at West Virginia — L

Feb. 15 vs. Iowa State — L

Feb. 18 at Texas — L

Feb. 22 vs. Oklahoma State — W

Feb. 25 at Oklahoma — L

March 1 at TCU — W

March 4 vs. Texas Tech — W

Nonconference

This is a tough K-State season to predict. The Wildcats return a talented core from a year ago, but most of those players are young and still don’t have experience winning games. The schedule starts fast with six games in 16 days but it doesn’t pose any real threats until the Wildcats head to Brooklyn, New York, for the Barclays Center Classic.

Their first game there against Boston College is a very winnable game but they would then likely face a sweet sixteen team from a year ago in Maryland. Wisconsin-Green Bay will be a sneaky tough game; the Phoenix made the NCAA Tournament last year and play a full-court press, up-tempo style that could cause problems.

Washington State and Colorado State will be tough matchups, especially on neutral sites in Kansas City and Denver, respectively. Another game fans may forget about is the one against Tennessee in the Big12-SEC challenge that takes place in the middle of Big 12 play. The Volunteers could cause some problems for the Wildcats.

But most likely the Wildcats will get through nonconference play fairly unscathed. Like seasons of late, they will play in way too many close games against teams that shouldn’t get close, but there just aren’t any games that the Wildcats aren’t capable of winning.

Conference

This is where things get tricky. A year ago the Wildcats were 11-2 in nonconference but finished the season with a 17-16 record, because of a 5-13 Big 12 record. The Wildcats just haven’t been able to win road games. It doesn’t help that the Big 12 is largely a mystery this year. Buddy Hield, Isaiah Taylor, Georges Niang, Perry Ellis and Taurean Prince are all gone, and behind likely first-place finisher Kansas, second through ninth place in the conference standings could be a toss up.

K-State starts with a tough three-game stretch with Texas and Oklahoma at home and Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. If the Wildcats can win two out of those three, it would really boost their confidence for the rest of the season. The Cats will start to figure out where they line up in the Big 12 race when they get West Virginia at home and Iowa State on the road in late January.

K-State will face a tough stretch of games in mid-February with games against Baylor, Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa State and Texas. But the team does end the Big 12 slate with four winnable games against Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, TCU and Texas Tech. The Big 12 should be more kind than it has been in recent years, and if the Wildcats finally figure out how to win close games and road games, then a top-five finish isn’t out of the picture.

Final Prediction

21-10 (10-8 Big 12)

The Wildcats will be an improved team from last year, and they can get back in the tournament but it all depends on the young talent on this team. We know what Johnson and Iwundu contribute. It depends on if Stokes, Brown and Wade can take steps forward and if Sneed and Maurice can provide reliable role-play.

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