MANHATTAN — In a recent staff meeting, Kansas State’s Director of Video Operations Anthony Winchester made a keen observation about head coach Jerome Tang’s mannerisms during games. Winchester pointed out that the head coach of the No. 14 Kansas State Wildcats was imploring his team to slow down after securing a rebound on the defensive end, often slowing or completely eliminating transition opportunities for the Wildcats.
Early in the season, Tang was more often seen looking like a third-base coach waving a runner home with how often rebounds were leading to a push in tempo and some early stress for opponents on the defensive end. The first-year head coach told reporters following Tuesday night’s 75-65 win over No. 9 Baylor that he was defensive when Winchester brought up the change in approach.
“And then I went home and thought about it and watched film and he was absolutely right,” said Tang, whose Wildcats scored 44 second half points during a program single season record-tying seventh victory over a ranked opponent this season. “So I came back the next day and said ‘AW, you were right. I am doing this a lot (Tang said while imitating a stop sign), rather than go.”
Tang admitting to being wrong in a later staff meeting led to Tuesday night, when Kansas State pushed the ball off rebounds and settled the tempo and ran offense in the half court off made baskets from Baylor.
“So we’ve tried to go back to just playing with more freedom,” Tang said. “I think that’s helped us.”
It sounds simple for the Wildcats, but avoiding isolation-heavy offense is a key to winning games. According to college basketball data analyst Evan Miyakawa, the Wildcats entered the night 14-0 when at least 65.5 percent of their made shots in a game were assisted on. With Tang encouraging more freedom, that record improved to 15-0 during the 2022-23 season, as Kansas State assisted on 20 of its 28 made baskets.
That trend for the Wildcats started early against Baylor head coach Scott Drew’s squad. During the game’s first five minutes, K-State assisted on all four of its first four made shots. The first two began a night full of assists for senior guard Markquis Nowell, who found senior forward Keyontae Johnson for multiple alley-oops on alternating sides of the rim.
“Markquis got me the ball on the first play and seeing the first few shots go in just loosened me up and got my confidence going,” Johnson said following a game-high 25-point performance, his third-highest scoring mark of the season. “I just tried to flow off of that and get what the defense was giving me.”
A high percentage of made baskets being assisted on is easier to come by with an advantage on the interior, and the Wildcats had that Tuesday night with a 42-16 victory in points in the paint.
“That was definitely a point of emphasis that we wanted to get to the paint either in transition or in the halfcourt,” Tang said. “The guys executed.”
Tang did, however, have a decent reason for a slight over-emphasis on slowing the game down. According to Miyakawa’s data, Kansas State is now 12-2 this season in games that feature 70 or fewer possessions. In games where the pace of play leads to more than 70 possessions, the Wildcats are slightly worse, going 9-5 in that 14-game sample size.
The most glaring issue for the Wildcats during Big 12 play has been their turnover issues. Among all teams in the nation, Kansas State ranks 262nd in the nation in turnover percentage on the offensive end. One of the main culprits of that has been Nowell, who entered Tuesday night averaging 3.6 turnovers per game. But against a Baylor team that has been lackluster on the defensive end for much of the season — specifically on the perimeter — Nowell had no issues with ball security.
“The game plan for me was to come out here and be poised,” Nowell said, “and give my guys the ball.”
In two games this season, the 5-foot-8 guard has combined for 24 assists and four turnovers. None of the turnovers came in the game in Manhattan, as the senior had a spotless 10 assists and zero turnovers. It was the first zero-turnover game of the season for Nowell, who holds the Big 12 lead in assists per game.
“We needed this,” said Nowell following a win and a double-double, his 14th of his career and ninth as a Kansas State Wildcat. “It’s good to be back on the winning side of things.”
Asked what could be done to stop Nowell from penetrating and creating easy looks, Drew wasn’t very optimistic.
“I think we used four defenses,” Drew said. “I’ve got one defense that will work: him graduating.”
There have been better shooting performances this season for Nowell. In his last seven games, Nowell is now shooting 22.8 percent from beyond the arc. But while none of the signature back-breaking 3-pointers from near midcourt fell through against Baylor, the veteran guard instead provided daggers with his passing.
Nowell began an 18-5 Kansas State run in the second half with a long step-back jumper that provided him with his first made basket of the night and gave the Wildcats a 45-43 advantage. Following a defensive stop and one of sophomore guard Cam Carter’s team-high eight rebounds, Carter heeded the instructions of Tang’s waving arms, outletting a pass quickly to Johnson for a dunk in transition.
On the next Wildcat possession, a second chance opportunity allowed Nowell to knife into the Baylor defense and find Carter cutting for a layup which forced Drew to call a Baylor timeout.
“The way that Baylor plays defense, they try to overplay a lot,” Nowell said. “So that’s why a lot of backdoor lobs and backdoor layups were open today. I was just reading the defense and taking whatever I had seen.”
Similar defensive breakdowns from the Bears wound up with Nowell connecting with junior forward David N’Guessan and Johnson again later on in the run.
“I thought ‘Quis made the simple plays,” Tang said, complimenting Nowell for keying an offense that turned the ball over just seven times in the game. “He got off the ball when he had two on him and it allowed us to get easy shots. Sometimes he hangs onto it too much and today I thought when he wasn’t making shots he was making simple plays.
“If we don’t turn the ball over we’re hard to beat.”
All of the passes that set up layups made up for a 21-point Baylor advantage shooting the ball from distance during a game in which the Wildcats shot 19 percent from beyond the arc. In doing so, it allowed Kansas State to secure a third win over a top-10 team this season. In a league as good as the Big 12, a little home cooking helped the Wildcats find their footing following two dissatisfying road performances.
“There’s always adversity and life throws things at you and you’ve gotta respond,” said Tang. “Today to watch the guys rally around each other and support each other and get this win tonight was just a strong testament to their character and the type of people they are.”