Last Sunday, Kansas State beat California 82-75, thanks to 30 points from--brace yourself--someone besides Michael Beasley. The leading scorer for the Wildcats on this day was the previously struggling Bill Walker. A 30-point performance from Walker led to speculation that K-State could be a factor in the Big 12 race if opposing defenses have to contend with two prolific scorers. Will this indeed be the case?
It will feel that way over the next couple of weeks. Looking forward, the Wildcats will be favored in their next three games, starting with tonight's contest against Florida A&M at the new Sprint Center in Kansas City. Then they'll journey to Cincinnati for a New Year's Eve date with Xavier, a game which no one will begrudge K-State for losing and which everyone would hail them for winning (though some of the bloom has been taken off a potential victory by the Musketeers' surprising 22-point loss to Arizona State). In sum, Frank Martin's team will probably start the Big 12 season with a little momentum, a 10-4 record or better, and a well-earned reputation for featuring perhaps the best player in the country. Not a bad profile for the new year.
If by chance things should go downhill from there, however, the reason will likely be Kansas State's offense.
How can that be? Beasley is not only prolific, he not only has NBA scouts drooling, he's also incredibly efficient in his scoring. How can offense possibly be this team's weak point?
Easy: There's only one Beasley on this roster. Given that the freshman sensation assumes an enormous role in this offense and that he's extremely efficient in his scoring, the ineffectiveness of the Wildcat offense constitutes something of an indictment of Beasley's teammates.
Actually, the "indictment" could result in a conviction on all counts, based on the games played to date. Walker's performance has been particularly striking--and not necessarily in a good way. He played just six games last year before suffering a season-ending knee injury, so we don't really have much of a track record to parse here. Still, the animating assumption with Walker has always been predominantly visual: to watch him play is to see a guy who has incredible athleticism.
Unfortunately that athleticism hasn't transferred into success where putting the ball in the basket is concerned. In fact, the remarkable thing about Walker's 30-point outburst against Cal is that he went just 7-of-22 from the field. Sure, he gets full credit for getting himself to the line 16 times and making 14 of his free throws. Even so, his shooting this season has been consistently off-target, and he launches more shots than anyone but Beasley. More than any other single factor, Walker's misses have dragged this offense down.
Indeed, if you're a Kansas State fan, the troubling thought is this that you've had your "easy" games. You've played Sacramento State, Pittsburg State, Western Illinois and Rider. So why is the Wildcat offense significantly inferior to what it was against the Big 12 last year?
Against Big 12 opponents, 2007 1.05
2007-08, first nine games 0.99
This offense actually got worse with Beasley. That's no mark against the freshman--he's been phenomenal. Rather, it's an accurate description of what's happened thus far when possessions that used to go to the excellent Cartier Martin have been given instead to Walker and to Jacob Pullen.
We've seen that Walker has struggled from the field. That's caused a significant drop in K-State's effective FG percentage. This team simply doesn't shoot well and indeed is one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the entire nation. Granted, part of that's merely a fluke. Clent Stewart, a middle-of-the-road 36 percent three-point shooter a year ago, is off to an ice-cold 4-of-29 start this season. Still, opponents will sag on Beasley or play zone until the Wildcats prove their poor perimeter shooting thus far really has been a fluke and not their true level.
In addition, turnovers are way up this season, thanks in large part to Pullen. The freshman point guard has dished a fair number of assists, but he's coughed up still more turnovers. As a result, Kansas State has given the ball away on 23 percent of their possessions this year. For a team that already struggles with its shooting, that kind of carelessness with the ball is a luxury Coach Martin simply can't afford.
Note also how completely Martin appears to have given a green light to Beasley: this team has been playing strikingly fast this season. Ordinarily it's futile to look at the pace of a "power"-conference team before New Year's. K-State's case, however, may be different. The Wildcats haven't exactly been blowing opponents, other than Sacramento State, away. More to the point, averaging 76 possessions per 40 minutes, as Kansas State has, is a speed that's unique enough to attract notice, even in December. Martin has clearly told his charges to get out and seize the day during the one and only season when they'll have Beasley on hand.
Kansas State has its strengths. They attack the offensive glass, they make opponents miss their twos, and they force opponents into turnovers. Mainly, of course, they have Beasley. This is not a team to be taken lightly.
It is a team, however, that needs to score more points than they have thus far. It's surpassingly odd to have to say that about a team that has one of the most gifted offensive players in the nation on its roster. Odd, but true.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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