KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s the first night of March. Kansas State’s Jerome Tang is sitting behind a black tablecloth answering questions after his team dismantled Oklahoma 85-69 on a senior night at Bramlage Coliseum. Near the end of his media responsibilities, Tang shares that one of the reasons he is confident his first Wildcat team is capable of making an extended run in the NCAA Tournament is based on his faith in his coaching staff.
Why, then, did Tang say he didn’t do a “very good job of preparing” his team for “how physical” the Big 12 Tournament is in the Wildcats’ 80-67 quarterfinal loss to TCU in which the Horned Frogs turned Kansas State over 20 times and converted 14 offensive rebounds into 25 second-chance points on Thursday night?
“We didn’t give enough effort to win a basketball game,” Tang said. “Hopefully the guys walk away and realize it takes a greater effort when there’s a greater challenge.”
It’s not a cliche that weird things happen in college basketball this time of the year. TCU shot below 30 percent from three-point distance this season, but they made 11-of-25 attempts against Kansas State on Thursday night. Ohio State lost 14 of 15 games at one point this season in Big Ten play and on Saturday they played Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals. These are just examples of unordinary things occurring this time of the year.
But the programs that have ultimate success in March are the programs that force the ordinary to happen instead. For Kansas State, much of this season has been unexpected, though. This was a team picked to finish 10th in the Big 12 before the season, instead, they finished third with impressive, NCAA Tournament resume-boosting wins at Texas, at Baylor, vs. Kansas and vs. Baylor, among many others. Yet, that wasn’t supposed to happen for this Wildcat team — or at least very few expected it to happen before the season started in November.
College basketball games in March present a more significant challenge than they do in any other month of the season. A team’s opponents are likely at their best because it’s the end of the season. In tournament play, there’s a tension that overcomes games — fans feel it in the pit of their stomach when the NCAA Tournament tips and more than just the accuracy of your bracket is riding on the outcome of a game.
A looseness is required to win in the NCAA Tournament. But so is an awareness of the moment, a heightened that the abruptness of the end could be less than 40 minutes away.
“I really don’t know how to make somebody not try too hard,” Tang said. “Hopefully as a staff, we’ll be able to put them in positions where we make the plays simpler for them. We’ll watch film and show them where the more prudent thing to do is, maybe move the ball.”
Tang’s confidence in his coaching staff is well-deserved, a person doesn’t earn a high-ranking position on a Big 12 coaching staff without having surpassed the merits necessary. But only one member of Kansas State’s coaching staff — Ulric Maligi — has previously coached on a Power 6 staff. Maligi is the only member of the K-State staff — in addition to Tang — that has been part of a coaching staff to see the second weekend, or further, of the NCAA Tournament.
Only two players on this Kansas State roster —
— have been on teams to play past the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament. And only Sills has played considerable minutes on a team to make it far in the NCAA Tournament. Only Sills can rely on previous experience at this time of the year.
“We have to stay together,” he said of the uniqueness of the NCAA Tournament. “It ain’t a one-man show, no two-man show. Everybody got to come and execute. We have some of the best players in the country, and somebody got to help them. So I am willing to step and everybody else got to step up.
“Everybody knows you want to survive, and nobody wants to go home. That’s one of the big keys. We want to win, and they want to win. So we all end up with the toughest teams.”
Maybe losing in the Wildcats’ first Big 12 Tournament game is a good thing for Tang’s team. Now, they get to practice for “three or four good days” before playing another game. Maybe losing also wakes the team up like a loud alarm clock at 6:30 in the morning.
“The guys now have that feeling of the season could be over, and that changes things,” Tang said.
TCU is a good basketball team, likely a No. 5 or No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They have a talented, experienced roster — and they played one of their best games of the season on Thursday night.
“There’s no shame in losing this game,” Tang said. “I am disappointed that I didn’t do as good of a job as I could have done or should have done to have our guys ready to do a better job here today.”
Kansas State’s players know and understand the “finality of things.” If they lose, it’s over.
“It’s about doing whatever we got to do do survive so we can advance,” Tang said.
So, too, does his coaching staff — a group Tang — rightfully — has supreme confidence. College basketball in March is about the abruptness of the end. Kansas State is capable of putting pen to paper for a long time.
Now, they get to show it.
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