Kansas State University

Kansas State’s bench crucial to team’s success

The phrase “Next Man Up” has become part of Kansas State’s basketball identity.

The Wildcats shout the slogan at practice and say it when coach Bruce Weber asks for substitutes. They even printed “Next Man Up” on shirts.

“That is our brand now,” junior forward Nino Williams said. “I think that is the best thing about our team. When someone isn’t playing well, the next man up will come in and do well.”

The phrase is neither original nor new. It is one of the most popular sayings in sports, particularly basketball and football. But few teams have embraced the philosophy behind it more than K-State.

Weber uses a 10-man rotation and asks a lot from his bench. In turn, his reserves understand their importance. Senior guard Omari Lawrence and sophomore forward D.J. Johnson have been instrumental in recent games, including a victory over Kansas. Freshmen point guards Jevon Thomas and Nigel Johnson occasionally take turns running K-State’s offense. And Weber thinks Williams is a candidate for Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year.

“They aren’t the best offensive players, but they are high-energy guys,” Weber said. “They play hard, they defend, they give us a different type of team energy and they have gotten better offensively. D.J. has had three or four really good games in a row. Nino has been great. Omari has a great attitude and finally accepted what he is, and has taken some pride in it. Nigel and Jevon give us another element of quickness.

“It is definitely an important part of our team. We have talked all year about ‘Next Man Up,’ and they have taken pride in that.”

None more than Williams, an undersized forward from St. Louis who is coming off a career game Saturday at Baylor. With senior guard Shane Southwell battling a left ankle injury and unable to play, Williams was inserted into the starting lineup for the first time in months. He responded with a career-high 20 points and eight rebounds.

Williams may start again Wednesday against TCU, but he is prepared to return to the bench. All he truly cares about is making the most of his playing time.

Usually, K-State coaches ask him to score and fight for rebounds near the basket. He is averaging 15.6 minutes, and could easily see increased action if he avoided fouls. Still, he usually impacts games.

That was certainly the case against Baylor. He continually found space against a zone defense and made open shots. He played to his strengths.

Some would covet a permanent spot in the starting lineup after that type of effort. And an argument could be made for Williams to replace Southwell in the starting five given his recent slump — he has averaged four points in his past four games — but Williams doesn’t care about such things.

“I don’t really think like that,” Williams said. “I just try go day by day. If you worry about stuff like that, you press yourself too much and try to do too much instead of being focused on the task at hand, which is TCU. It doesn’t matter if I start or come off the bench in the next game, I just want to play consistent, play with energy and play with life.”

Lawrence has similar goals.

“I am just trying to be a better leader by motivating the team,” Lawrence said, “and letting them know that we have to win as much as possible.”

K-State may not need an all-hands-on-deck effort to beat TCU. The Horned Frogs have lost all 12 of their conference games and were no match for the Wildcats last month in Fort Worth.

But the “Next Man Up” will be on alert just in case.

“It keeps guys motivated and fired up,” Williams said. “Nobody is going to play perfectly every game, but when you have a deep bench someone is always ready to step in.”

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