by Gabe Swartz • EMAWOnline – Staff Writer

MANHATTAN — Kansas State can make a Final Four. That’s something that no Wildcat team has done since 1964. But it can be done this season.

In the first year of the Jerome Tang era in Manhattan, the Wildcats have won 23 games before the regular season has even concluded. With a Saturday trip to West Virginia still to come, Tang has already matched Bob Huggins for the second-most wins in an opening season coaching the Wildcats.

“We thought we had a tournament team,” said Tang when asked what about his team gives him belief in postseason success following the Wildcats’ 11th win in conference play. “I didn’t think we’d be fighting right there on the verge of a 2 seed.”

The 11th-ranked Wildcats took a little bit of time to get going Wednesday night at Bramlage Coliseum, but once they did they put on a show. Kansas State went into the halftime break on a 9-0 scoring surge thanks to some fancy passing.

Leading 29-25, senior guard Desi Sills caught a pass in transition and in one motion fired it behind his back right into the shooting pocket of senior forward Keyontae Johnson, who stepped into a wing 3-pointer. Splash. Twenty seconds later, junior forward David N’Guessan was letting out a euphoric scream after being on the receiving end of — and converting — a between-the-legs bounce pass from senior guard Markquis Nowell that turned into a dunk.

Against Oklahoma, there were 3-pointers falling through the hoop while the shooter (Nowell) had already turned his back to the play, only the crowd’s reaction letting him know that the shot had fallen perfectly through the rim. On a night that Nowell and Sills combined for 18 assists, the two were often seen putting their hands around their eyes to make note of their outstanding floor vision.

“My man has some serious vision,” Tang said of Nowell, who, in the second half wound up and threw a baseball-like strike to junior forward Nae’Qwan Tomlin, who beat every OU defender down the floor for a dunk to give Kansas State a 41-27 lead. “He’s not second or third in the country in assists per game by accident.”

If you’ve been following Kansas State basketball this season, at some point you’ve heard that these Wildcats were picked to finish in 10th place in the preseason Big 12 coaches poll. In their final regular season game in the Octagon of Doom, Kansas State dominated the team that will finish in 10th place in the conference to the tune of a 85-69 victory.

“At the beginning of the season, expectations were low so we played hungry,” said Tomlin, who scored a team-high 19 points against the Sooners. “I think expectations changed about us being a higher seed or whatnot, and we’re still trying to play with that same hunger and grit.”

Added Sills: “A lot of guys didn’t believe in us, but one thing Coach Tang always said was ‘crazy faith.’ He’s been speaking about the NCAA Tournament from the get-go, from the start. And to see what we see today, that’s a beautiful thing because we’ve all put in hard work.”

Kansas State can win the national title. That’s something that no Kansas State team in any sport has ever done, but it can be done this year.

Make no mistake. No one is saying the Wildcats are absolutely going to win the national title. But they undoubtedly have the ingredients to contend for it all in March and April. That’s because for as much showtime and sizzle — two words not exactly associated with Manhattan, Kansas — as there is with their passing, transition scoring and dunks, Kansas State’s success is predicated on defense.

“Our defense is top 15 in the country,” said Tang, whose defense ranks 12th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom. “What (assistant coaches) Ulric (Maligi) and Jareem (Dowling) have done on the defensive side of things really allows our offense to go, because I don’t think we’ve executed in the half-court yet the way Rodney (Terry) and I want to see it executed.”

Every national champion in the KenPom era (since 2002) has had a defensive efficiency of 22nd or better. In fact, the 2021 Baylor Bears — a group Tang was a part of — were the worst defensive team to cut down the nets in the last two decades. But this K-State team is better on the defensive end than those Bears.

While the numbers say Kansas State’s defense is better than its offense, that doesn’t mean the Wildcats are incapable of putting the ball through the basket. In one-third of their games this season, the Wildcats have scored at least 80 points.

And as the Wildcats’ offensive efficiency is improving, they have a guard in Nowell that can take over games in March like he did throughout various stretches of Big 12 play. On Wednesday night, Nowell racked up 11 points and 10 assists, his seventh double-double of the season. Who’s to say he can’t become this March’s Kemba Walker or Shabazz Napier?

Add in that Johnson helps create a formidable duo, and the Wildcats have two guys that coaches must gameplan to stop each and every night. Citing a Bill Peterson lesson learned during his time at Baylor, Tang said he continues making an effort to keep things simple with his two stars.

“(Peterson) told me, ‘Jerome, good coaches get their best players the most shots,’” Tang said. “We’re trying to get ‘Quis and Keyontae shots, and get them in the position to shoot the ball, or most of the time people put two people on them and have them make the simple read.”

When those two get going (Johnson had 16 points on Senior Night) and the supporting cast provides performances like Sills’ 15-point, nine-rebound, eight-assist showing, the Wildcats are as hard to beat as any team in the country.

“When you have multiple players and everybody locked in,” Johnson said, “this is what we’re capable of doing.”

With a week-and-a-half to go until Selection Sunday, Kansas State currently is positioned for a 2 seed. The Wildcats could solidify themselves in that position with a few wins in Kansas City next week, but could also move onto the 1 seed line with four more wins and a Big 12 Tournament title. That also has never happened at K-State before.

But after being ranked in the top 15 of the AP Poll for seven straight weeks, Nowell said they’ve adjusted well to life as the hunted. How? By not changing their approach.

“I still feel like we are hunting,” Nowell said. “I still feel like we have a lot to prove on a day-to-day basis. A lot of people have been counting us out from day one and we’ve been approaching every single day like that. I think we have a lot more to improve and a lot more to do. I don’t think my guys are satisfied. I still feel like we are hunting the top teams out there.”

After the 15th win this season at Bramlage Coliseum, Tang and the players went into the student section to dance with the student body. Then, he and the seniors grabbed a microphone and spoke to the fans once again, giving thanks to those in their life that have helped make this season in Manhattan a special one.

“We ain’t done yet,” Nowell closed out his time by saying.

And he’s right. The Wildcats aren’t done yet. And as Tang has said before during this season, going forward they should expect to win.