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On Thursday night, Kansas State commences the single-elimination portion of thier schedule in the Big 12 Tournament, and head coach Jerome Tang thinks that Thursday day vs. TCU is going to be the most challenging his team faces in the conferences tournament.
The Horned Frogs aren’t the best team in the Big 12, that title likely belongs to Kansas, the highest-ranked team in the conference and the outright regular season conference champions. TCU probably isn’t even the second-best team in the Big 12. Texas, Baylor and Kansas State all have legitimate arguments for that title. So why does the Big 12 Coach of the Year think the Horned Frogs are going to be the toughest challenge Kansas State will face in the Big 12 Tournament?
“The hardest thing to do is win the first game,” Tang said. “Because everybody prepares for it.”
Kansas State and TCU split their season series, the Wildcats lost in Fort Worth 82-68, playing one of their least inspiring performances of the season. K-State didn’t appear to play hard, and Tang has admitted since that his team didn’t. But the Wildcats responded in the rematch between the two teams beating the Frogs 82-61 in Bramlage Coliseum. But TCU was without starting All-Big 12 guard MIke MIles and center Eddie Lampkin only played 18 minutes as he continued to fight back from a lower leg injury. With those two players back into the fold, TCU is a more challenging team.
“I thought fully healthy,” Tang said, “They were the best team in the league, talent-wise.
“They become more of the fastbreak team they were before. I thought the second time we played the, they tried to control the tempo a little bit more. They took fast break opportunities as they presented themselves. I think they’re going to try to push the pace more. So that’s going to be a point of emphasis.”
Lampkin presents a unique challenge for Kansas State now that he’s healthy again. He’s the biggest player in the conference. He is just shy of 7-feet and weighs close to 300 pounds. Unlike most Big 12 teams, Lampkin plays most of his minutes glued to the paint offensively. Defensively he has limitations, but he’s an above-average defender despite not blocking many shots.
“Eddie is different – his size. It’s hard,” Tang said. “Offensive rebounding becomes another issue.”
He scored 17 points the first time the two teams played, making 6-of-7 shots while also grabbing six rebounds. The Wildcats’ 2-point defense is far from elite — opponents convert on 49.2 percent of their shots and Kansas State ranks 247th in block rate — making it easier for strong big men to score in the paint.
Publicly, Kansas State is saying the right things about playing in a single-elimination tournament that the Wildcats enter with high expectations. The usual cliches are being said by players. But in reality, this is a team composed mostly of players who haven’t experienced loads of success in their conference tournaments and, later, the NCAA Tournament.
“That’s what drives us,” first-team All-Big 12 guard
said. “We want to experience that. We want to go far. We have a special group of guys from the starters to the bench. We are a very hungry team.”
The challenge of playing in a conference tournament is the handling of emotions. Teams experience thrilling wins one night, and are then asked to forget about the game the moment they walk off the glossed hardwood. They have to focus on the next day. The next game.
“It’s our job to be ready,” Nowell said. “Mentally prepared in each game and know every specific detail that it’s going to take for us to win. Focusing on one thing at a time and going 1-0.”
This week, Kansas State is spending most of its time preparing for TCU — not the other teams on the Wildcats’ half of the bracket, including Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. If the Wildcats are fortunate enough to advance to Friday’s semifinals with a win over TCU, then K-State is most likely to play Texas, assuming the No. 2 seeded Longhorns can all handle any threat from Oklahoma State and Oklahoma.
But the Wildcats won’t do much-advanced preparation for their semifinals opponent. Of course, K-State will have played their potential Friday foe twice already this season. That makes it easier for K-State in the Big 12. But instead of having a traditional game plan, Tang instead will ask his team to focus on a couple of specific details while focusing on their habits.
“In the Big 12, everybody knows each other,” Tang said. “It’s going to be a grind.”