PREVIEW: Round of 64 K-State vs. Montana State

Coach Tang sits in front of his players during a time out, focused on instructing the team. The wildcats defeated UMKC 69-53 on Nov. 17th. (Archive photo by Jersey Johnson | Collegian Media Group)

Following a three-year hiatus from the NCAA Tournament, Kansas State is dancing again behind first-year head coach Jerome Tang. The Wildcats enter the tournament as a No. 3 seed and will face the No. 14 seeded Montana State Bobcats at 8:40 p.m. on Friday.

Montana State received the Big Sky’s automatic bid following a victory in its conference tournament. The Bobcats hold a 25-9 record, but more impressively come in as winners of nine straight games. This trend is eerily similar to No. 13 seed UC Irvine who upset the Wildcats after winning 16-straight in 2019. 

The Bobcats’ path to an upset starts at the free-throw line. Montana State is second in the country in average free throws made per game, just behind No. 17 Texas A&M. 

This means staying out of foul trouble will be key for the Wildcats, in particular with forwards Nae’Qwan Tomlin and Keyontae Johnson. 

“When Nae’Qwan doesn’t foul, he gets to play more and when he plays more, we’re better,” Tang said after Tomlin’s 19-point performance on Senior Night.

Johnson’s foul trouble also became an issue during K-State’s worst stretch of the season. 

“It’s tough when one of your best players picks up two fouls in the first couple seconds of the game,” Tang said after a home loss to Texas. “​​We’re putting him in and out of the game and really can’t get into a rhythm. 

Neither team shoots the 3-ball particularly well. Both rank in the bottom half of the country in 3-point percentage. K-State, however, should have the advantage with its defense. The Wildcats is 16th in the country in opponent 3-point percentage compared to the Bobcats’ 211th ranking. 

For the Bobcats, guard RaeQuan Battle is the primary scorer with 17.4 points per game. The Wildcats own two players near Battle: Johnson at 17.7 and guard Markquis Nowell at 16.8. If both K-State stars have a high-scoring night, the Bobcats’ chances of an upset dwindle. 

The key for the Wildcats offense is to avoid committing turnovers. Despite the team’s high scoring, both Johnson and Nowell also led the Big 12 in turnovers. Luckily for the Wildcats, Montana State doesn’t rank high in opponent turnovers, but it could still be a main factor in this game.

K-State saw a defeat in its last two tournament games against double-digit seeds in the Round of 64 but has the opportunity to right the ship under Tang, starting as a No. 3 seed on Friday.