NORMAN — For a half of basketball, Kansas State looked like it had found some footing. Nearly 72 hours after turning the ball over a season high 23 times to a last place Texas Techsquad, the Wildcats were provided an opportunity to play the new basement dweller in the strongest conference in America.
Senior guard Markquis Nowell, who had been plagued by turnover woes throughout Kansas State’s recent struggles, didn’t give Oklahoma any extra possessions via reckless offensive basketball. Couple Nowell’s careful offense with one of the best halves of basketball in recent weeks from junior forward Nae’Qwan Tomlin, and Kansas State should’ve felt great about its chances of getting a momentum-shifting win.
Instead, a second half that highlighted the inconsistency of K-State’s backcourt was on full display as the Wildcats fell 79-65 to the Sooners, extending the 12th-ranked squad’s losing streak on the road to five games.
“I thought coach Moser and his staff did a much better job than we did of having his team prepared,” head coach Jerome Tang said, “and his guys did a great job of executing what they wanted to do.”
Execution hasn’t been up to par for the Kansas State guards on the offensive end as of late. Since the beginning of conference play when Nowell performed at an All-American level in a two-game road trip to Texas and Baylor, the 5-foot-8 guard hasn’t been the same away from Bramlage Coliseum.
In general, his efficiency has dipped as the Wildcat guard bears the burden of inconsistent backcourt assistance from sophomore guard Cam Carter and sixth-man senior Desi Sills. On Tuesday night in Norman, Carter and Sills combined to shoot 1-for-9 from the floor and score four points.
“Everybody is getting scouted right now,” Tang said. “Teams are doing a really good job of loading up on our two best players and we have to do a better job of manipulating the defense to help them be a little bit more effective.”
When Kansas State has been at its best this season, Carter and Sills have provided production. In a win at home against No. 2 Kansas, Sills scored a season-high 24 points. At Texas, Carter scored a career-high 17 points and he added eight in the overtime win over Baylor in Waco as well.
A week prior to Tuesday’s loss to the Sooners, Tang sat at the podium in Bramlage Coliseum speaking on coaches’ wishes for consistency from a rotation. Those desires were spoken about after an out-of-nowhere 13 points and nine rebounds from Tykei Greene in a win over TCU, but they could be spoken about when discussing nearly any Wildcat other than senior forward Keyontae Johnson and Nowell.
At this point, there’s little consistency coming from the cast of Kansas State Wildcats not named Nowell or Johnson. And it shows. While Tomlin scored a team-high 17 points, most of his production is a byproduct of good guard play. As Tang put it, “we just didn’t throw the ball to Nae’Qwan and Bebe (Iyiola) in the second half.” Because of that, scored four points in the second half after a 13-point first half.
Kansas State still turned the ball over 14 times against Oklahoma, a number that was unacceptable to Tang.
“Our guys understand that we have to do a better job of that and they tried,” Tang said. “Fourteen turnovers is still too many but there were other glaring things that stood out.”
Most frequently, teams in the Big 12 have adjusted their ball-screen coverages toward Nowell, putting an emphasis on hard hedges that take the ball — and offensive decision-making — out of his hands. In the first half, Tang said Nowell’s teammates did a great job of creating hockey assists for the point guard, with second passes setting up easy scores.
“You can’t guard him 1-on-1,” Tang said of why teams have employed that strategy.
But as Oklahoma head coach Porter Moser explained, trapping Nowell and extending their defense — something other Big 12 teams have also done as of late — helped force the New York native into tougher shots from distance.
“We were trying to pick him up a little farther out,” Moser said after Nowell went 2-for-9 from distance, continuing a run of nine makes on 42 attempts in the last five games. “He can make those but we were just trying to make them tougher.”
With the blueprint out on how to slow down Nowell it’ll take more consistent assistance from Carter and/or Sills for K-State to reach its potential once again. When one of them produces, the Wildcats are better. When two of them are cooking, Kansas State becomes a great threat. Without either producing, superhuman performances from Nowell and Johnson are needed on a nightly basis, because the Big 12 has no off nights.
“Everybody’s going through different things at different times. Nobody cares that (junior forward) David (N’Guessan) is sick, or this person is dealing with that,” Tang said. “It’s part of being in the best league in America and having a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.”