Kansas went into Bramlage Coliseum last night and earned a 59-53 win over Kansas State in a game that surely made defensive enthusiasts proud. The Jayhawks needed just 0.92 points per possession on offense to get the victory, as their defense held the home team to 0.83 points per trip.
While the win offers further validation for KU's case as a Final Four contender, it also all but cemented the Wildcats' place on the bubble for the time being. With their next two games coming on the road against Baylor and Missouri, K-State's immediate NCAA tournament prospects appear to be in peril. A lesson from last night's game can offer a glimpse into why this is the case.
Throughout his tenure in Manhattan, Frank Martin's squads have always been elite at two things: offensive rebounding and earning trips to the free throw line. This year's team is no different -- it currently ranks fourth in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage and tenth in free throw rate. Despite frequent trips to the line, however, the K-State struggled early in the season to connect on those freebies. Then, just when the Cats started connecting on their free throws at last, their trips to the line started trending downward.
The Wildcats' sudden inability to generate trips to the line was on display against the Jayhawks. A majority of their first half shot attempts were jumpers from anywhere but near the basket, which is where they're most likely to draw contact. They had more success getting to the rim in the opening moments of the second half, particularly when Rodney McGruder began to drive into the lane. His most effective move of the game was his floater, which he was able to connect on primarily because the shot soared above the reach of that bastion of Big 12 shot-blocking, Jeff Withey.
But beyond those few moments, Withey and Thomas Robinson effectively denied the K-State attack around the basket, and they did so without committing many fouls. Withey had nine blocks, most of which were accumulated near the basket on attempts by the likes of Thomas Gipson, Jamar Samuels, and Jordan Henriquez. Withey's ability to block or alter shot attempts without fouling against a trio that usually draws fouls at an elite rate was the major difference in the game. And it's also why the Wildcats shot just 34 percent from inside the arc.
Moving forward, Kansas State will need its frontcourt triumvirate to get back to its foul-drawing ways. The players have more than held their own on the offensive glass -- they boarded 41 percent of their misses against Kansas -- but recently they've struggled to maintain that elite free throw rate that has been such a key component of the program's success. Granted, Withey and company have made a lot of frontcourts look despondent this season, and the Wildcats won't see that particular blend of interior dominance again in the regular season. But this is something that afflicted KSU in recent losses to Texas and Iowa State, as well.
Even with one of the best defenses in the country, the Wildcats have been below-average on offense in Big 12 play. Given their struggles making shots from the field, the free throw line remains their best ally in their quest to attain the offensive efficiency needed to make a case for a tournament bid.
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