Nate’s Notes: What happened to a women’s basketball team projected to win big?

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Head coach Jeff Mittie speaks to his players as junior guard Christianna Carr walks past him in K-State's 78-67 loss to TCU on Feb. 10 at Schollmaier Arena. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Ellman)

The Kansas State women’s basketball team sits at 2-12 in Big 12 Conference play and 7-14 overall going into their final stretch of games for the 2020-21 season.

The team was supposed to play much better than that.

Coming into this season, it seemed a more experienced, reloaded version of the team that finished in a logjam at the top of the conference the year prior. At 10-8 in Big 12 play, the team tied with Iowa State for fourth and a single game behind third-place Texas last year.

I told the Collegian’s Monday Morning Brief listeners before the season that a top-half finish was reasonable and that the team could finish as high as third. That prediction was in line with the Big 12 preseason coaches’ poll, which ranked the Wildcats fourth behind Baylor, Texas and Iowa State.

But, with a hectic four-games-in-eight-days to go, the team sits half a game behind expected bottom dwellers Kansas and TCU.

What the heck happened?

The Wildcats’ early-season schedule was a mess, but the first real challenge was a Dec. 3 date with a top-15 Kentucky squad in Manhattan. The Wildcats had an advantage for a good part of that game, but you could see the issues that would plague K-State all season long.

Sophomore center Ayoka Lee, who the team counts on to dominate both ends of the court, went out with a significant ankle injury which put her on crutches. The team turned the ball over too much and fell apart at the end to lose by 11.

“Coach [Jeff] Mittie has been pushing us in our head now to expect the unexpected,” junior guard Christianna Carr said after the Kentucky game. “Injuries are going to happen, COVID’s going to happen, but that doesn’t mean we are going to sit there and stop. I feel like we had some energy, but the game’s got to go on.”

Carr’s quote was a microcosm of what would come.

Lee returned to dominate and the Wildcats would use her to roll off three straight wins going into a tough start to conference play: a road trip to Iowa State and a date with at-the-time No. 20 Texas.

Then disaster struck: the team missed five games and all practices over the course of a month because of a COVID-19 outbreak. Mittie later revealed all but two of his players were impacted by either the virus or contact tracing during that period.

From there, it was fatigue, not enough practice time and a lack of confidence that doomed K-State to several late-game collapses.

“There’s not a time in my career where I’ve had a 30-day layoff,” Mittie said after his team fumbled away a 12-point second-half lead against West Virginia in the first game back. “So to have precedent to it, know what you’re going to deal with, fatigue, all those things. We had the game where we wanted, we had the pace where we wanted, we were executing things very well, offensively we were doing some good things, we just didn’t finish.”

Mittie had a delicate balancing game to play: practice too much and the players won’t have the legs to play deep into games, too little and he can’t fix the on-the-court problems the team had.

“As a coach, you have to kind of pick what you are going to work on,” Mittie said after a second-half collapse against Kansas the next game. “Some of that has to be conditioning and playing. It’s a real challenge for our players. We’re probably more limited than I’ve ever been in late-game situations.”

A 15-0 run by Oklahoma State to finish off K-State in their third game in six days showed the Wildcats’ glaring issues with fatigue, ball handling and confidence.

“Whenever you play games back to back to back to back, the physicality catches up to you,” Carr said after that game. “I felt that tonight a lot. I was tired tonight. I started to feel it there in the fourth quarter.”

As the losses mounted, Mittie made it clear the COVID-19 pause was no longer the culprit of the teams’ issues. The team got its legs back and resumed normal practice. The games got closer, too.

With fatigue no longer a major factor in the coach’s eyes, he blamed the Wildcats’ struggles on a few factors: struggles on offense, an inability to break the press, foul trouble and a lack of confidence in late-game situations.

“The type of turnovers we had were frustrating,” Mittie said after a two-point loss to Oklahoma. “The majority of our turnovers were self-inflicted.”

Oklahoma, like many other Big 12 teams, put the full-court press on K-State in the second half to grind the Wildcat offense to a standstill. TCU did it too and it affected K-State’s confidence.

“Part of it is confidence in being able to go make plays,” Mittie said after the TCU loss. “When you’re struggling — particularly against the press — you’re trying not to turn the ball over as opposed to trying to advance the ball to go make a play.”

The same issues arose in loss after loss for K-State while the Wildcats suffered injuries to Carr and senior point guard Sydney Goodson. The Wildcat lineups were thrown off.

“Our problem is that our guards don’t really play well together like they need to,” Mittie said after a loss at Texas. “What I mean by that: our timing’s off, our ball movement’s off, we don’t always move it to the right player. That ends up with a number like you see today: four assists, 21 turnovers.”

As a team, K-State averages nearly six more turnovers than the team forces opponents into, which is equating to nearly eight more points off turnovers for K-State opponents.

The Wildcats showed flashes of breaking out of those bad habits, though. A Feb. 24 win over Texas Tech showed K-State only turning the ball over 13 times and finishing out a game where it lost a 17-point lead.

“We gave up a big lead tonight, but we didn’t give in to that and we made some plays down the stretch and that should give us confidence going forward,” Mittie said after that game.

It was nearly deja-vu for K-State, but they survived.

“There is always going to be that voice in the back of your head that’s like, ‘holy crap deja-vu.’ I feel like you just can’t have that,” Carr said. “With this team, we just have to realize that we are experienced enough and we have been in a heck of a lot of close games. I think the best part is just to keep trying to be motivated and try to continue to do the right thing and understand that mistakes are going to happen.”

Now, with confidence seemingly restored, some of the teams’ demons exorcised and post-season play extremely unlikely, success in K-State’s remaining schedule is important going into an offseason where the entire roster could return.

The team visits No. 7 Baylor on Saturday, host TCU on Monday and West Virginia on Wednesday and then travel to Oklahoma to finish out their regular season on Sunday before the start of the Big 12 Tournament.

A record of 2-2 in that stretch is very possible if K-State continues to play with confidence and takes care of the ball.

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Nathan Enserro
Hi! I'm Nathan Enserro, a graduate student from Olathe, Kansas, working on a Masters in Mass Communication. I graduated in spring 2020 with a Bachelor's of Science in strategic communications from K-State. This is my fourth year covering K-State sports for the Collegian.