LAWRENCE, Kan. — The halfway point of Big 12 play arrived Tuesday night for the Kansas State Wildcats as the clock expired at Allen Fieldhouse. Through nine games in America’s best conference, first-year head coach Jerome Tang’s group has played five road games and followed a familiar game script in each of them.
In a rematch with its in-state rival, Kansas State allowed Kansas to score 90 points in regulation, continuing a trend of high-scoring contests in road games during Big 12 play. Against Iowa State a week prior in Ames, the Wildcats were brutalized on the interior and Tang said they would have to re-consider how they wanted to guard post touches.
On Tuesday in Lawrence, Tang’s group was beaten from beyond the arc and in transition, where the Jayhawks offense scored 54 of its 90 points.
“Our guys followed our game plan,” said Tang, following the Wildcats’ third loss in conference play. “(Jalen) Wilson didn’t go for 38 this time and Gradey Dick didn’t get 20, but (Wilson) drilled a 3 in the corner when it was a 10-point game and Kevin McCullar drilled two 3s. Those guys made plays, so the credit goes to them.”
Tang’s sentiment was similar to that of senior forward Keyontae Johnson after last week’s loss to the Cyclones. On that night, when T.J. Otelberger’s group scored 80 points, Johnson said the Cyclones made tough shots when it mattered. In Lawrence, the Jayhawks jumped out to an early lead and had little game stress in the second half.
In five games on the road in Big 12 play, Kansas State is 2-3 under Tang and have lost their past three away from Manhattan. In each game, the Wildcats’ opponent has scored more than 80 points in regulation, averaging 90 points allowed per conference road game.
Two weeks after the Wildcats defeated the now eighth-ranked Jayhawks, their in-state foes shot better from 3-point range than inside the arc, handing them a 90-78 defeat that continued to muddy the top of the Big 12 standings.
In the first half, Kansas got off to a hot start, taking advantage of the track meet-type pace established by the Wildcats. Near the mid-way point of the first half, a technical foul was assessed to the Kansas State bench following a foul by junior forward Ish Massoud.
A fired up Tang said he was reacting to what he felt like was an uneven whistle early in the game, but the technical foul fueled a 16-6 Kansas run.
Dick and Wilson rained in 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions to give Kansas a 30-19 lead, prompting a Tang timeout. Out of the brief break, Kansas extended the lead when sophomore forward K.J. Adams caught a pass from junior guard Joseph Yesufu, spun and threw down a dunk in semi-transition with 8:59 to play in the first half.
It was the first of two avalanche-like runs from KU in the first half. After Kansas State answered the Kansas run with a 10-0 spurt of their own, the Jayhawk lead ballooned back to 45-32 when sophomore center Zach Clemence splashed in a 3-pointer from the left wing with 2:08 to go in the first half.
“I thought we got sped up and did some things that were uncharacteristic of us,” Tang said, “and that was because of their defense. We left our feet a lot to throw passes and we had 10 turnovers in the first half. We only had three in the second half. I thought we had a bunch of self-inflicted wounds.”
Kansas State’s loss to the Jayhawks was the third straight road loss for the Wildcats. In a league full of quality opponents known for quality defense, the Wildcats haven’t shown themselves to be capable of fielding one when they aren’t playing in Bramlage Coliseum.
The 88.2 points per game in conference road games is certainly a product of the tempo with which Kansas State plays. Overall, the Wildcats rank 74th in the nation in adjusted tempo per BartTorvik.com.
According to Torvik, in all Big 12 games nobody plays faster than the Wildcats. Pair playing at a quicker pace with a conference worst defensive efficiency in road games and over-and-over seemingly absurd shooting numbers from opponents have happened.
“They got out in transition and they got their crowd involved,” senior guard Markquis Nowell said after scoring 23 points. “They had a huge first half. I felt like we dug ourselves a little hole in the first half but my guys competed and played hard until the end, so I’m proud of them.”
On Tuesday night, the unexpected performance from the opponent came via the play of Kansas’ junior guard Dajuan Harris. While the Wildcats limited Wilson to 22 points after the All-American candidate entered the night averaging more than 28 per game in his last four, they allowed Harris to score a career-high 18 points.
Given a cushion to shoot from 3-point range, Harris shot 2-of-6 on wide open looks from deep, a percentage that Tang will live with given his defense’s other options. But Harris was 5-for-6 from inside the arc and was more efficient than Nowell was during a 5-for-18 shooting performance.
K-State returns to the comfort of home for its next two contests, meaning they won’t be as reliant on their stars to shine. But when they do go back on the road, they’ll need Nowell and Johnson to be more efficient than the 32.4 percent mark they combined for on 37 shots at Allen Fieldhouse. That was the recipe in the early conference wins in Austin and Waco. It hasn’t been the same in Fort Worth, Ames or Lawrence.
“I feel good about where we’re at,” Tang said. “I don’t think we’ve played our best basketball. And so I think we can keep getting better. I’m fired up.”
“We’re going to wash this thing and we’re going to focus on what’s next.”