Before the season, Kansas State Wildcats head coach Frank Martin said in a press release, “By far, this is the most athletic team we’ve had. I think we’re faster, it’s our longest team and it’s the heaviest team we’ve had. We’re excited about this group. It’s been a fun group.”
This group he speaks of is possibly the youngest team he’s coached at Kansas State as well. This group of guys led by senior Jamar Samuels and junior Rodney McGruder, managed to finish the season (21-10, 10-8) and acquire the No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the right to play the No. 9 seed Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (25-8, 11-5) from Conference USA.
For Southern Miss, this is only the third time in school history that they’ve made an appearance in the Dance and the first in 21 years. Both of the previous match ups haven’t gone too well with an 0-2 overall record in the NCAA Tournament.
The Golden Eagles finished second in their conference standings and with 25 wins, which is a school record since joining the Division 1 ranks. Southern Miss has a balanced attack offensively, led by Kansas native Neil Watson, a sophomore transfer from Toledo. Watson leads the Golden Eagles in scoring with 12.2 points and assist with 4.5 and adds three rebounds per game.
LaShay Page, provides a scoring threat off the ball, while Kentucky transfer Darnell Dodson adds scoring and rebounding from the wing/four. As a team, the Golden Eagles attack the basket harder than many programs in the country. They’ve been known to use their energy to out-work their opponents. It’s one of the main reasons Southern Miss has nine wins over programs in the RPI Top 100. Not to mention, the Golden Eagles aren’t short for talent. They’ve added transfer from Toledo, Kentucky, Iona, USC and Nevada. These players have come together to make this season the best in school history for Southern Miss.
As for Kansas State, this is the 26th appearance for the Wildcats and third consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats finished fifth in the conference and finished the season with 20 or more wins for the fifth consecutive season under head coach Frank Martin. This season has been filled with high-and-lows for the Wildcats.
The Wildcats started the non-conference schedule portion off hot with just one blemish headed into conference play. Once conference started, the Wildcats were swept by Iowa State, Kansas and Oklahoma, while also picking up losses to Baylor and Texas. However, the Wildcats also defeated five NCAA Tournament teams and swept the Big 12 Champion Missouri Tigers, while winning on the road against a top 10 team in Baylor.
Offensively, Kansas State is mysterious. Some games, McGruder will lead the scoring department, or Samuels, or maybe even Jordan Henriquez. The Wildcats use a balanced attack offensively and either clicks offensively or does not. McGruder leads the Wildcats in scoring with 15.4 per game, while adding 5.4 rebounds. Samuels is the second leading scorer with 10.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Defensively, Kansas State can be great. The Wildcats held 13 opponents under 60 points this season including NCAA Tournament teams such as Kansas, Missouri, Alabama and Baylor.
This will be a really close game and should be decided late in the second half. Both teams have similar styles of play and it should be interesting to see which one prevails in the end. Similar to Kansas State, Southern Miss is a good defensive team that can rebound efficiently on the offensive end. However, their Achilles’ heel this year has come on the offensive end. They’ve struggled against teams because of their offense, and when the opposition isn’t fouling and sending them to the line, it’s really tough for them to score in a half-court set. They don’t have an offensive weapon that is going to beat you and with Angel Rodriguez hounding Watson at the point, the Wildcats should be just fine under certain circumstances.
The Wildcats must establish the bigs down-low and get McGruder going early. Henriquez is coming off a monster day against one of the top players in the country in Perry Jones III. Henriquez had 22 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks. Outside of that, as a team, the Wildcats had just 10 more rebounds combined from the rest of their lengthy rotation.
Responding from a performance like that is a must if Kansas State expects to get it done against one of the better mid-major programs. The Wildcats need to take care of the ball, stay out of foul trouble and keep Southern Miss off the glass. If they’re able to do those three things, Kansas State will more likely live to dance another day.
The game will be played Thursday, March 15, 2012 in Pittsburgh at 12:40 PM with TRU TV picking up coverage of the game. The Wildcats come in 6.5 favorites according to a Las Vegas spread.