It’s hard to say what fans should expect from the Kansas State men’s basketball team this season.
The three players that led K-State to an Elite Eight in 2018 and a shared Big 12 championship in 2019 are no longer with the team, but a promising crop of freshmen have arrived on campus to help replace them.
Xavier Sneed and Makol Mawien are back as seniors. Cartier Diarra and Mike McGuirl both have upside as juniors. Bruce Weber likes to describe this group as “new” instead of “young.” But few outsiders have shown confidence in K-State’s returning roster, as the Wildcats were picked to finish ninth in the Big 12 preseason poll.
This is a transition year, similar to the last time K-State shared a conference championship in 2013 and relied heavily on newcomers the following season. That team won 20 games behind freshmen Marcus Foster and Wesley Iwundu. Will this team follow a similar path?
We will find out soon enough. K-State’s first game is at 7 p.m. Tuesday against North Dakota State. Until then, here are five bold predictions for the upcoming season.
Five bold predictions
Xavier Sneed will make the all-Big 12 team: Sneed, a senior wing who averaged 10.6 points last season, is finally the alpha male in Manhattan. After years of playing alongside Barry Brown, Kamau Stokes and Dean Wade, he will get an opportunity to shine with the Wildcats. Sneed tested the NBA Draft waters last spring and came close to turning pro, but opted to return and lead Bruce Weber’s team as a senior. He has had big moments before, including 22 points and nine rebounds in a Sweet 16 victory over Kentucky, but consistency has alluded him. That should change this year as K-State’s offense will flow through him. Sneed can score inside and on the perimeter. He is also an excellent defender. If he can average around 15 points, he will have an excellent shot at all-conference honors.
Growing pains in the frontcourt: The Wildcats will miss Wade in the paint this season. Weber has three options to replace his most productive big man, but none of them seem desirable at the moment. Option 1: Move senior forward Makol Mawien to the four and play him alongside Levi Stockard at center. This lineup features size and experience, but leaves K-State vulnerable against smaller opponents on defense and slow on offense. Option 2: Keep Mawien at the five and play Montavious Murphy and Antonio Gordon exclusively at the four. This lineup features athleticism and scoring punch, but relies heavily on a pair of freshmen. Option 3: Slide Sneed to power forward and go with four guards. K-State has found success with small lineups before, but it’s not something Weber wants to do for an entire season. It could take him a few weeks to figure out the frontcourt.
DaJuan Gordon will be Weber’s best freshman since Marcus Foster: He might not match Foster’s initial scoring output of 15.5 points as a freshman, but the Chicago guard will make an immediate impact. Gordon has nice outside touch as well as athleticism. He is an excellent rebounder and dunker. But he might be even better on defense. For now, Weber is rolling with McGuirl in the starting lineup. But don’t be surprised if Gordon joins the starting five as the season progresses.
Turnovers will be a problem: One statistic stood out from K-State’s final exhibition tune up against Washburn last week: the Wildcats had 22 turnovers compared to 13 assists. Some will write that off as a one-time issue in a meaningless game, but Weber has complained about turnovers all preseason. David Sloan, a junior-college transfer, is the only pass-first guard on the roster. DaJuan Gordon, Diarra and McGuirl can all play point guard, but it’s not their forte. Sophomore Shaun Williams is serving an indefinite suspension. The Wildcats want to run and play faster this season. That should increase pace and scoring, but turnovers will climb, too.
K-State will finish better than ninth in the Big 12: The Wildcats will make Big 12 coaches look silly for voting them so low in their preseason poll. This team has enough talent and experience to win 20 games and return to the NCAA Tournament. Even when K-State bottomed out under Weber in 2015 and the Wildcats finished with a losing record they still finished tied for sixth in the final league standings. Weber has never finished worse than eighth in the Big 12. That won’t change this year.
Regular-season projection: 20-11 overall, 9-9 Big 12.
The Wildcats should win most of their games against a nonconference schedule that features few challenges outside of Alabama, Marquette and Mississippi State. Their results in Big 12 play could swing wildly from game to game. This team will win some big games and lose some head scratchers on its way to a .500 conference record.
March projection: NCAA Tournament first round.
Making it back to the NCAA Tournament would be a nice accomplishment for this team, but it’s hard to see K-State playing beyond the first weekend.