Here are some key factors that will decide if Kansas State can snap its six-game losing streak in the Sunflower Showdown.
Can Kansas State force turnovers and clean up the defensive glass?
Kansas State is ranked 86th in defense – not great – but the Wildcats force a lot of turnovers. Bruce Weber has his team playing an aggressive scheme designed to force mistakes. KSU ranks seventh in steal rate – the Wildcats swipe the ball on 12.2 percent of their opponents’ possessions. Barry Brown and Xavier Sneed each average at least 1.4 thefts.
That’s part of the reason why Kansas State matched up so well with the turnover-prone Trae Young, despite all of his dazzling talents. Young coughed it up 12 times in Manhattan. But Kansas has a senior point guard in Devonte’ Graham who rarely turns it over; the Jayhawks give the ball up on 16.2 percent of their possessions, ranking 32nd.
Kansas State will send pressure and traps all over the court. If the Wildcats force a turnover, it’s off to the races to the other end. But if Kansas can secure the ball and swing it a few times, the Jayhawks will have no issues finding open 3s. The ball moves faster than humans. Kansas has multiple ace shooters.
Another place Kansas can hurt Kansas State: on the boards. The Wildcats allow opponents to retrieve 33 percent of their misses, which ranks near the bottom of Division I teams. The Jayhawks generally don’t crash the glass much, but this matchup may call for a different mindset.
The turnover and rebounding margins will likely decide the game. This is a matchup where having a senior floor general like Graham is a massive advantage.
Will Malik Newman stay hot?
It’s no coincidence that Newman found his game at the same time Kansas caught fire. Frank Mason isn’t easily replaced. It was nice to have Graham to slide into the lead ball-handling role, but that meant someone had to replace Graham. That was Newman’s job.
It didn’t go very well to start the season, and Bill Self benched Newman at one point. But he’s back in the starting lineup and firing. On Jan. 15 against TCU, Newman played 15 minutes and scored one point. In the six games since then, he’s averaging 17 points and has canned 15 3s. This is what Self envisioned when he brought on Newman as a transfer.
The knock on Newman at Mississippi State was his lack of efficiency. His skills were obvious – Newman has a silky-smooth jumper, a solid build and above-average explosiveness. But in general, stepback 2s or contested 3s are a losing proposition. Newman took too many of those in Starkville, and for a while, in Lawrence. But his shot selection has improved drastically.
As mentioned before, Newman should see some open looks on Monday night. He’ll play a role in Kansas’ final turnover number, for better or worse. But if he can make quick decisions and free himself up for open jumpers, he could have a huge game. It will be interesting to see if Weber instructs his team to stick to Newman on the perimeter instead of helping off. Probably not, because Kansas has several capable shooters.
Can Dean Wade play like the best big man on the floor?
Wade is quietly having an awesome season – he’s the rare big who can shoot 3s, make plays for others and hang defensively.
His averages this season: 16.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists on 58 percent from the floor and 45 percent from 3. Put it this way: if Wade played for the Jayhawks, they’d probably be the No. 1 team in the land. He’s exactly what Kansas needs at the power forward spot.Wade is the best big man on either team and needs to show it on Monday night. He’s a completely different player than Udoka Azubuike, Kansas’ interior anchor. Azubuike is massive and has the ability to posterize an opponent on any given possession. But he’s not nearly as versatile as Wade; while Wade is shooting 45 percent from 3, Self has to wonder if he can keep his center on the floor in late-game situations. Lon Kruger used the Hack-a strategy on Azubuike last week, and it may have won the game for Oklahoma.
Kansas State doesn’t have many decisive edges over Kansas in personnel, but the Jayhawks don’t have a multi-dimensional big man like Wade. If he balls out, the Wildcats can pull off the upset at home.
Who will Weber throw at Graham?
It should be mentioned, we’ll see what kind of defense Weber employs. Likely a mix of man and zone; Kansas State has thrown different looks at various opponents this year.
Kamau Stokes likely would have been the pick – he matches up with Graham positionally and is a pest, but he's out with an injury. Carter Diarra could get the nod, but Brown is KSU's best healthy perimeter defender -- that said, he has to carry a heavy offensive load, and chasing Graham around will be no easy task. Kansas State relies on help defenders (perhaps to a fault) and it would be much better defensively with more of an emphasis on stopping the ball. The Wildcats will be in great shape if they can cut off Graham’s penetration. So does Weber slot Brown on Graham right away? Or wait until the game gets tight?
The Wildcats should be able to score on the Jayhawks. The other end is more interesting. Weber will likely use a bunch of different defensive tactics and hope something sticks.
Score prediction: Kansas 78, Kansas State 75