OPINION: Despite loss to KU, bench experience will be good for K-State at NCAA Tournament

With great energy, K-State fans begin cheering on the men's basketball team against KU in Bramlage Coliseum on Jan. 29, 2018. The Jayhawks took the win over the Wildcats with a final score of 70-56. (File Photo by Logan Wassall | Collegian Media Group)

The Kansas State men’s basketball team fell to the Kansas Jayhawks in the Big 12 Tournament semifinals, 83-67, after a series of unfortunate events left K-State in a bad position against its in-state rival.

On Thursday night, rumors began to circulate that K-State’s star junior forward Dean Wade had suffered a foot injury and would not be playing against KU.

On Friday morning, it started to look more like fact than fiction when he was listed as “doubtful.” By that afternoon, it was confirmed by head coach Bruce Weber that Wade would miss the game.

The absence of Wade spelled trouble for the Wildcats on its own, but once the game began, it only got worse.

Less than two minutes into the game, junior guard Barry Brown was hit in the eye on a drive to the basket. He immediately dropped to the floor and writhed in pain.

He headed to the locker room and later returned to the bench. Ultimately, his day was over. ESPN’s Holly Rowe said Brown had “slight bleeding” in his eye, and Weber said Brown could not count how many fingers his coach was holding up.

Sure, KU was without forward Udoka Azubuike for the Big 12 Tournament. But his injury robbed the Jayhawks of their best post player, not one of their best overall players. Reserve big men Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa stepped up when called upon and filled the gap decently.

K-State had a decision to make with its top two scorers out. They could either accept defeat to a KU team that was still going strong, or play their hearts out. The Wildcats chose the latter.

Despite being down by double digits multiple times, the Wildcats kept battling back into the game. They were never entirely out of the game until the final minute.

While it hurts to lose to a rival for the third time in the same season, K-State will surely benefit moving forward from the number of quality minutes that bench players racked up.

Junior guard Amaad Wainright and freshman guard Mike McGuirl far exceeded their season averages, registering 35 and 21 minutes, respectively. The two performed well on the floor, too.

Wainright finished with nine points and five rebounds. At one point, he scored five consecutive points to narrow the gap to eight points early in the second half. Wainright also played respectable defense.

McGuirl did not produce outstanding numbers by any means, but he finished with four points, four rebounds and four assists. He converted an and-one around the 12-minute mark of the second half to draw K-State within six points of the Jayhawks.

Sophomore forward Xavier Sneed found a positive in the fact that bench players getting solid minutes could carry over into the NCAA Tournament. K-State was recently confirmed to be facing the Creighton Bluejays in round one.

Sneed said without two of their all-conference players, the Wildcats showed they have a lot of good rotations and “got a lot of fight in those guys and hope we can do some damage in the tournament.”

Weber was also glad that the reserves got some more playing time.

“It was a great opportunity for our guys to learn and keep growing as a team, and hopefully we got some good things left to get everyone healthy and play at a high level next week,” Weber said.

Not only did players like Wainright and McGuirl get more playing time than usual, some of K-State’s normal contributors stepped up as well.

Sneed, along with freshman guard Cartier Diarra, made some big plays. Neither posted magnificent numbers, but if you watched the game, you would know they were key players for the Wildcats.

Diarra finished with nine points and four assists. He also made some great drives to the basket, finishing with layups to keep K-State in the game.

Midway through the second half, Diarra threw a great alley-oop pass to Sneed that fired up the K-State crowd and narrowed the KU lead to a manageable margin.

Sneed himself tallied 12 points, six rebounds and five assists. His numbers do not pop off the page either, but like Diarra, he made some momentum-changing plays.

However, the biggest and most obvious Wildcat that stepped up Friday night was sophomore forward Makol Mawien.

Mawien finished the game with a career-high 29 points, along with two blocks. Time and time again, he posted up and finished passes with layups and hook shots.

It is easy to see that Mawien’s confidence has soared as of late. He has registered 14 points, 16 points and now 29 points in the last three games.

Sneed applauded the play of his teammate.

“Knowing Udoka was out before [the game], attacking on the inside was a big thing for us, and Mak showed up today, and big kudos to him,” Sneed said.

Mawien’s success Friday is partially attributed to the absence of Wade and Brown, but it is still a sign of great things to come.

When asked if he expected to have Brown and Wade for the tournament, Weber answered positively.

“I would say yes right now,” Weber said. “I hope we can get them both back, but we showed without them we are still a pretty good ball club.”

If Wade and Brown are healthy later this week for the NCAA Tournament and Mawien continues to play aggressively, good things could be in store for K-State.

While it came at the mercy of losing to the dreaded Jayhawks, the growth of bench players Wainright and McGuirl and the continued emergence of Mawien are good signs for this team’s future.

The K-State and Creighton matchup will tip off on Friday in Charlotte, North Carolina, at 5:50 p.m. inside the Spectrum Center. The game can be watched on TNT and the K-State Sports Network.

Jarrett Whitson is a sophomore in mass communications. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.