Jeff Mittie looked at the four-team pod and grinned.
“I kind of got sick of seeing the rest of the Big 12, quite frankly,” said Mittie, Kansas State’s second-year coach. “I’m glad to see somebody else and we’re excited about the tournament.”
The Wildcats, seeded ninth, begin their first NCAA Tournament since 2012 against No. 8 seed George Washington on Friday, and the overall feeling is relief.
K-State, 18-12, felt good about its chances of getting into the NCAA Tournament but wasn’t sure after it went 8-10 against the brutal Big 12. The Wildcats had to sit through half of the tournament selection show before seeing their name.
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Paired with the George Washington Colonials in a regional that includes top-seeded South Carolina and 16 seed Jacksonville, the Wildcats are happy to be in the tournament. Practice on Thursday was as physical as usual, but the smiles were broader than ever.
“This group has saved me numerous times this year,” Mittie said. “They have really played well.”
Mittie remembered the turning point of the season, after a 20-point drubbing at West Virginia on Feb. 6. The Wildcats had started poorly in the Big 12, going 0-4, but won their next four.
But those four wins were followed by three straight beatings from Texas, Baylor and then at the Mountaineers. Yet after the buzzer went off in Morgantown, Mittie addressed his team.
He didn’t scream. He said that despite the loss, K-State had played pretty well. The Wildcats just couldn’t shoot, going 27.6 percent from the field.
“I’ve been doing it long enough to know a good basketball team from a bad basketball team,” Mittie told them. “This is a good basketball team.”
The team listened, came home and thrashed Oklahoma despite a quick turnaround. The Wildcats were 4-4 the rest of the way but were still rewarded.
“Our defense wasn’t where it used to be,” junior Kindred Wesemann said. “Our coaches made some adjustments, and that ended up giving us the boost that we needed and confidence on the defensive end to get some more wins under our belt.”
Defense was stressed.
“We were worried we had some colorblind kids because we weren’t guarding anybody in the other jersey,” Mittie cracked. But it worked.
Now the Wildcats are trying to keep it going against the Colonials, 26-6, who are anchored around their forwards. Jonquel Jones, who’s 6 feet 6, Kelli Prange, 6-5, and Caira Washington, 6-2, will have to be held in check by 6-5 Breanna Lewis and her frontcourt mates.
“Playing in the Big 12, we have big girls in the post, too,” Lewis said. “Playing against another tall post player is always an adjustment, but I just plan on working hard and playing how I played in the Big 12.”
Not seeing a Big 12 opponent on the other bench may be all the boost that Kansas State needs.