MANHATTAN — The Big 12 has been nothing if not unpredictable this season.
With one exception, that is.
While every team around them has suffered setbacks — be it injuries, internal strife or even just a rough stretch here and there — only the Kansas State Wildcats have found a way to consistently navigate the turbulent waters with minimal damage.
After dropping their first two league games, the No. 18-ranked Wildcats have won their last nine, beating every Big 12 opponent in order as they prepare for a 3 p.m. Saturday visit from No. 23 Iowa State. It's no coincidence that they're also a battle-tested team with the scars to prove it.
"I think it's a big part of our team, especially just experience, " said all-conference forward Dean Wade, who along with fellow seniors Barry Brown and Kamau Stokes make up a veteran starting lineup that also includes two juniors. "We've got a lot of older guys that have been through everything before."
A year ago, the Wildcats endured a seven-game stretch without Stokes, now a fourth-year starter at point guard, and saw redshirt freshman Cartier Diarra step in to fill the void. Then after escaping the bubble and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, they put together an Elite Eight run without Wade, who like Stokes suffered a foot injury.
At 19-5 overall with a 9-2 league record, the Wildcats are 1 1/2 games clear atop the Big 12 standings and a minimum of two games ahead in the loss column. Texas Tech and Kansas are 8-4, with Iowa State and Baylor at 7-4.
"I think the experience and going through it last year — really the last two years," K-State coach Bruce Weber said of the keys to his team's ability to retain its focus. "You had Kam back-to-back years, you had Dean last year and then all the situations this year.
"If you use life experiences to a positive — you take a negative and make it a positive — it's going to help you. We talk about that all the time."
The Wildcats took their first hit this season when Wade, the preseason conference player of the year, missed six games with another foot injury, including the first three league contests. Stokes also missed a 20-point home loss to Texas, and Diarra suffered a broken finger before last Saturday's 71-64 victory at Texas.
"I think last year benefitted us a lot," Wade said. "From the injuries and missing people it really taught us it's next-person-up, a next-guy-up kind of mentality.
"(Injuries happen), but it also opens doors for other people to get big opportunities to really show what they can do, so I think we benefitted from a lot of the negatives from last year, the injuries and stuff. We've taken some positives away from it and our experience has really shown through the season."
Not only has the experience hardened them when it comes to physical ailments — in addition to Diarra's absence, they had several players battling the flu before the Texas game — but it also has helped them keep their composure when things get dicey.
On Saturday, they trailed Texas 39-35 at halftime, but held the Longhorns to 30 percent shooting with a zone defense while hitting 56.5 percent from the field themselves.
"I think experience just allowed us to stay poised, make shots down the stretch," said Brown, who finished with 16 points and five rebounds. "Get stops, get rebounds, knock down free throws at the end of the game to seal it."
And if something isn't working, they're open to suggestions.
"Barry, Kam, X (junior guard Xavier Sneed) and myself have all been through the fire before," Wade said. "You've got to make adjustments or nothing's going to change."
Weber takes comfort in knowing that his upperclassmen will make sure that halftime adjustments aren't an exercise in futility.
"Older guys make you good coaches because you can tell them things and they go do it, and the other guys might not even listen or they might not know what you're saying," Weber said. "They've been through it and it makes it much easier, there's no doubt. They go and execute under pressure and that's the big key."
Diarra has surgery
Weber said Thursday that Diarra came through surgery to a broken finger on his shooting hand in good shape, but offered no timetable for his return.
"We've just got to hope he comes back sooner than later," Weber said.