No matter what happened during Kansas State’s first basketball road trip of the season – a four-game swing that presented new challenges at every turn – coach Bruce Weber insisted we would learn a lot about the Wildcats when it was over.
So, now that the trip has concluded with a 70-47 loss to Pittsburgh and a fourth-place finish at the Maui Invitational, the question is obvious: What did we learn about the Wildcats?
The answer isn’t so obvious.
We have seen the best and worst from K-State (3-3) this season. It has won twice by lopsided margins at home, it has beaten Purdue on a neutral court and it has pushed No. 3 Arizona to the brink in a competitive loss. Yet the Wildcats have also looked lifeless in their only true road game, a loss to Long Beach State, and they appeared overmatched against Pittsburgh (4-2).
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Anything seems possible from here.
The only thing certain at this point is that K-State players will walk away from the Maui Invitational feeling disappointed. They wanted more from their time at the Lahaina Civic Center.
“I would like to take this game out of it,” Weber said. “Obviously, you can’t. But I thought we showed some competitive spirit since Long Beach and we played with a little better defensive intensity. We have got to find a little bit better niche offensively.… If we don’t make shots, we have still got to find a way to win games. We just have to go back and watch film and figure it out and move forward.”
Things started promisingly enough in Maui with a victory over Purdue and a narrow loss to Arizona. But K-State’s tournament experience ended with a resounding thud.
Pittsburgh annihilated K-State, beating the Wildcats in every phase. It outscored them 34-22 in the paint, it outscored them 17-10 off turnovers and it overwhelmed them with 28 points off the bench.
With K-State making 32.6 percent of its shots, and just two threes, it never stood a chance.
“They weren’t really doing nothing,” K-State senior forward Thomas Gipson said after scoring a team-high 13 points. “We just got out-toughed.… We just weren’t as aggressive as we were the first two games. We weren’t making the extra pass to an open guy.”
Still, K-State started out hot, taking a 10-3 lead at the first media timeout with crisp offense that included a jaw-dropping alley-oop dunk by Wesley Iwundu. But the Panthers dominated from there.
Weber blamed the quick turnaround on aggressive substitution patterns. He sent five new players into the game, and the new platoon struggled.
“I thought the bench would be key, but I probably put too many guys in at one time,” Weber said. “We were up and then they made the run to get it back and we never really got going again. They just had more toughness, more will-to-win, more competitive spirit.”
Behind 14 points from James Robinson, 13 points apiece from Michael Young and Ryan Luther and 10 points from Jamel Artis, they were too physical and efficient for the Wildcats to handle.
Pittsburgh held a 30-22 lead just before halftime, and things could have gotten ugly from there if not for Gipson closing out the half by scoring five straight points and drawing a charging foul to make the score 30-27.
The Wildcats sprinted to the locker room expecting to build off that momentum. Instead, Pittsburgh played with higher energy in the second half.
Young opened the second half with a two driving layups and a free throw, then Jamel Artis hit a contested shot and made a free throw. Sandwiched around a free throw from K-State’s Jevon Thomas, the Panthers surged to a 38-28 lead.
The futility of K-State’s comeback hopes were summed up in the next minute when Foster found Justin Edwards for an alley-oop layup to make the score 38-30, and the Wildcats fans on hand rose to their feet only to watch Ryan Luther drain a three on the other end.
More than 14 minutes remained on the clock, but it was apparent Pittsburgh was going to win.
“We got to that point in the second half where we had a lot of guys hit walls,” Weber said. “We couldn’t make baskets. I’m just a little bit disappointed in that competitive spirit, not being able to fight and keep it at that point where (the deficit) is at eight or 10. That’s where the game should have been, but we didn’t do that.”
Gipson was the only K-State player to reach double-figures. Nino Williams scored eight points, while Jevon Thomas and Marcus Foster each scored seven.
“We did a very good job on Foster,” Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said. “I can’t really explain that, because I saw some of the plays he made and some of the shots he hit in the semifinal. He is very good. We did a good job with the ball screens on him. I think that was important.”
The poise K-State showed fighting back against Arizona on Tuesday was lacking. On this day, the Wildcats appeared to panic, turning the ball over as Weber aggressively substituted in hopes of finding fresh legs.
Pittsburgh, also playing its third game in three days, didn’t look tired at all.
“I felt like we put everything we had into the first two games,” Gipson said. “That’s not an excuse. We needed to come out and play, and they out-toughed us. We just all have to overcome that fatigue and play harder.”
It was a fitting end to the tournament for K-State. The Wildcats started high and finished low.
Now they can only look ahead.
“It’s a good experience,” Gipson said. “Hopefully we can learn from it and go back home and it will help us prepare for the Big 12. We still have got a long ways to go, but I think this will end up being a good experience for us.”