Many will struggle to find the proper words to describe Kansas State’s basketball team after its 70-69 victory over No. 12 Iowa State on Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum.
The unpredictable Wildcats have beaten back-to-back top 15 teams. They have won five games against teams currently ranked in the RPI top 25, a statistic that ranks third nationally behind Kansas and Villanova. And the Wildcats have entered the postseason conversation.
Yet they also have a handful of unspeakable losses. They need more victories to feel good about making the NIT. And the last time their record (15-15, 8-9 in the Big 12) was this bad at the end of February was 2006.
It’s impossible to say which numbers best explain this team.
Still, Wesley Iwundu doesn’t hesitate to try.
“This is the most interesting team I have ever played on,” he said, “with the games we have won and the games we have lost. It has been a very up and down year — a big roller coaster that I have enjoyed ... I wouldn’t trade my teammates for nobody. We just have to finish out strong.”
K-State had its best week of the season. It came from 14 down in beating Iowa State, 20-8, 10-6, five days after knocking off No. 8 Kansas.
The Wildcats have never been more confident.
“It is just about staying positive throughout the rest of the season,” said Iwundu. “For the rest of the games, we do not know what is going to happen. We just have to keep playing. Maybe we can win the conference tournament.”
K-State coach Bruce Weber likes that kind of talk.
“We have said this all year: We can beat anyone in the country,” Weber said. “The problem is, we just haven’t been consistent in the other games. That focus and maturity consistently hasn’t been there. Maybe we are making the right moves and the right progress at the right time.”
The biggest positive might have been the way Weber settled on a primary rotation of six players in the second half.
Iowa State skated to a 14-point lead in the first half and kept the pressure on by making three-pointers and Georges Niang scoring 21 points for the game. But the Cyclones struggled to drain shots as the game went on. That’s because Weber turned to Jevon Thomas, Nigel Johnson, Iwundu, Justin Edwards, Nino Williams and Thomas Gipson to make big plays.
Those six players found a groove, and with one continually subbing out for another, K-State improved dramatically on defense. That led to fastbreak opportunities and a boost of offense.
“They pressure you really well in this building, there is no doubt about that,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. “This is a team that has won eight league games, and they have been very good at home. We expected them to come out and pressure us and play us very tough, and they did.”
Behind 17 points and nine rebounds from Johnson, 16 points from Edwards and 11 points from Iwundu, the Wildcats rallied and tied the game at 66-66 on a running layup from Edwards with 58.3 seconds remaining.
The final minute was filled with entertainment and lead changes, but K-State made enough plays to win.
Iwundu made the biggest plays of all. First, he blocked Niang on a potential go-ahead jumper and ended up scoring a layup on the other end that put K-State on top 68-66. Then he stole an inbounds pass and threw down a dunk that put the Wildcats in front for good with 16.4 seconds remaining.
“I had a lot of emotions running through my mind and body,” Iwundu said. “I just stepped up and made a big play.”
Weber had a feeling Iwundu had a big finish in him.
“He was great on the defensive end,” Weber said. “Wes has length and can move a little better than some of our other guys, which was a big part in our game. We got more fastbreak points than some of the top teams in the country. There were just a lot of good things he did.”
For Iwundu, it was his best performance in weeks. Same for Edwards, who shot with confidence and attacked the basket like the player many expected him to be when he transferred from Maine.
For Johnson, it was the start of a trend. After playing sparingly most of the season, he turned heads by scoring 20 points against Kansas. He proved that was no fluke by coming off the bench and leading K-State in scoring Saturday.
“I am really confident right now,” Johnson said, “probably the most confident I have been in my college career. Hopefully I can keep it up.”
K-State may need him to as long as Marcus Foster, the team’s leading scorer, remains in his slump. Foster managed six points in 12 minutes against Iowa State.
In the end, though, one big victory turned into two, and K-State had its most successful week of the season.
“We just proved to everyone that we can beat the top teams,” Edwards said. “I think we proved to ourselves that we can keep up with these teams, too. We are more motivated to make a push at the end of the season.”