It's time to reassess the Big 12 and where preseason favorite Kansas State sits in the pecking order.
Oklahoma State was the latest team to unmask the weaknesses of a team that's far from what it was a year ago, when the Wildcats finished second in the Big 12 and reached the Elite Eight. K-State (12-4) lost its Big 12 opener 76-62 on Saturday. Frank Martin's team, ranked No. 3 in the preseason, is in jeopardy of falling out of the top 25.
Actually in Ken Pomeroy's ratings, the Wildcats are already out of the top 25. K-State, ranked 38th, rates out as the Big 12's seventh-best team by kenpom's lights, behind Kansas (3), Texas (13), Texas A&M (27), Missouri (28), Baylor (31) and Nebraska (36).
So what's the matter with Kansas State?
Most of the problems start at point guard, where the loss of Denis Clemente has been more damaging than expected. Specifically Jacob Pullen has had problems as a scoring point guard. His turnover rate has ticked up from last year, while his shooting numbers have dropped without his speedy sidekick Clemente setting him up. Pullen's effective FG percentage is 47.2 (down from 53.3 last year), and he's shooting 33 percent from beyond the arc (down from 40).
Meanwhile Pullen's usage numbers are similar to last year. In other words he's not shooting much more often, but the type of shots he's taking are different. Pullen excels playing off the ball and using screens to get open. He's also a great face-up shooter out of the proverbial triple-threat position, but this year Pullen has had to create for himself off the dribble.
Martin of course realizes that Pullen's better playing off the ball, and he's tried to get freshman Will Spradling, his only true point guard, more minutes. Spradling hasn't always appeared Big 12-ready, however, and indeed has often been on the receiving end of Martin's glare-down sessions.
K-State's also had to find other scoring options, as Clemente averaged 17 points and took 28 percent of the team's shots when he was on the floor -- all while sporting a low turnover rate. By contrast this year the Wildcats are turning the ball over on 22 percent of their possessions, which ranks 254th nationally. In three of their four losses, Kansas State has turned it over 21 or more times.
The other bugaboo for this team in their losses has been poor shooting. Here are K-State's effective FG and three-point percentages in their four losses:
Duke: 30.0 eFG; 3-17
Florida: 27.3 eFG; 3-19
UNLV: 43.3 eFG; 3-12
Oklahoma State: 41.3 eFG; 6-21
Oklahoma State finished Saturday's game on a 35-13 run, as the Wildcats recorded just one made field goal over the final 9:26.
With Clemente gone, K-State expected to get more offense out of its talented frontline of Curtis Kelly, Jamar Samuels, and Wally Judge. But the production from Kelly and Samuels has actually gone down even though they're being used more. Kelly averaged 11.5 points per game last season and is averaging 10 points this year, despite taking 24 percent of the shots when he's on the floor compared to 20 percent last season. Likewise, Samuels averaged 11 points in 2009-10; he's averaging 10 this year and taking 25 percent of the shots, compared to just 20 percent last year.
Of course Kansas State has certainly faced its fair share of distractions, not to mention personnel losses. Kelly's missed the last five games (and will miss one more) because of a suspension for taking impermissible discounts from a Manhattan department store. Pullen had to sit out three games, one of which was the loss to UNLV.
Moreover the Wildcats do have some quality wins -- Virginia Tech, Gonzaga, and Washington State -- without any terribly embarrassing losses. So what is Martin's team doing well? They still play good defense, and they're still one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. The Cats ranked sixth last year in offensive rebounding percentage (40.4), and they're grabbing 43.6 percent of the offensive rebounds available this season, good for third in the country. That's at least a little surprising considering Dominique Sutton, their best offensive rebounder last season, transferred out of the program.
Sutton's departure has not been felt near as much as Clemente's, but he still would make this team better. Certainly the Cats could have used him against Oklahoma State small forward Jean-Paul Olukemi, who went off for a career-high 22 points.
Losing on the road in the Big 12, especially in Stillwater, is not all that surprising. K-State still has enough parts to make the NCAA tournament and possibly make a run. Martin built his program on defense and effort, and that should be one year-to-year constant. But this year's team was expected to be a national title contender. Unless Martin figures out a way to move Pullen off the ball and improve the offense drastically, that's just not going to happen.
C.J. Moore is a writer in Kansas City.