Another year under the tutelage of head coach Jeff Mittie. Another tournament berth for the Kansas State women’s basketball team.
For three years now Mittie has led the Wildcats to postseason play, which in itself isn’t an anomaly — Deb Patterson’s teams only missed playing in March five of the 18 seasons she coached (1996-2014) before Mittie arrived in Manhattan.
But when Patterson was fired at the end of the 2013-14 season, the Wildcats had gone from a 9-9 conference record in 2011-12 to finishing 5-13 against Big 12 opponents for two straight years.
Mittie was brought in to reverse K-State’s downward trend — the Wildcats had an 85-80 record the last five seasons under Patterson after having enjoyed a 114-51 stretch the five years prior. And in Mittie’s third year as head coach, K-State is getting a lot closer to looking like those teams in the early 2000s that perennially made a tournament run.
K-State hopes to begin such a run on Saturday as the seventh-seeded Wildcats (22-10) will play No. 10 seed Drake (28-4) at Bramlage Coliseum on Saturday at 3 p.m in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“They’ve really committed themselves to playing at a high standard and doing that consistently,” said Mittie on Friday. “And if you do those things and your culture cultivates those things then ... you can do some special things down the road.”
The Wildcats don’t have an easy road ahead of them. Drake is riding a 22-game winning streak — the second-longest active streak in the NCAA behind Connecticut’s 106 — and is seventh in the country in points per game (83). The Bulldogs have five players averaging double figures in scoring, including Blue Springs native Lizzy Wendell, whose 675 points (21.1 points per game) this season rank 10th in the country.
Their up-tempo offense will challenge K-State, which averages 68 points per contest and typically allows 62 points.
“They are really long, they get their hands up a lot on defense like we do. They like to push in transition,” said K-State senior Kindred Wesemann. “I think our transition defense has to be better than it has been.”
Wesemann, who leads the team with 14.0 points per game and 61 steals on the season, will have to find a way around a Drake defense that holds opponents to 30.7 percent on three-pointers. Wesemann is quite capable on three-pointers. She led the Big 12 with 85 of them.
K-State will also need a good performance from fellow All-Big 12 first-team member Breanna Lewis. Lewis ranks seventh in the Big 12 with 278 career blocks and has averaged 2.23 blocks per game through four seasons. She’s just as valuable offensively, putting up 13.7 points per game this season on a 55.7 percent shooting.
And if K-State, ranked No. 24, can’t stop the momentum of 20th-ranked Drake — which is led by former K-State assistant Jennie Baranczyk (2004-06) — Mittie’s Wildcats will still be able to take pride in winning the most games in a season since the 2008-09 team went 25-8.
“He obviously saw something in us that he saw he could get this program back to where it needs to be,” Wesemann said. “We were going to be sophomores, and we had to grab it by the horns and go with it. We had to trust whatever he said, and we did and I think it’s paid off.”