With about 13 minutes to play Sunday night in Kansas State’s eventual 50-43 victory against Maryland-Baltimore County, Bruce Weber offered a loud thought to his Wildcats.
“Hey, we gotta win with defense,” he yelled.
So, what’s new?
As Weber’s Wildcats (24-11) prepare to meet Kentucky (26-10) at 8:37 p.m. Thursday in the South Regional semifinals in Atlanta, they have come to embrace a defense-first mindset that has carried them to seven wins in their past 10 games and helped them cope with the loss of their best offensive player.
K-State held three teams under 34 percent shooting during that stretch. That included both of its NCAA Tournament foes, with Creighton managing only a 33.8-percent clip in a 69-59 loss and UMBC shooting just 29.8 percent.
Only one team — Oklahoma at 52.7 percent on Feb. 24 — made more than half its attempts against K-State in the past month, and four of the Wildcats’ seven wins down the stretch came on days when they failed to hit 50 percent themselves.
In other words, when Weber barked those second-half instructions Sunday, the idea of winning with defense wasn’t a foreign concept to his Cats. In fact, the sixth-year coach was merely emphasizing a message he already had preached to K-State, which played its third straight game without injured All-Big 12 forward Dean Wade (foot).
“We talked about being the best defensive team in the tournament,” said Weber, whose team has allowed 66.9 points for the season. “I guess 59 and 43 are pretty good numbers against two really high-powered offensive teams.”
Pretty good? Actually, they’re the best.
Of the 16 teams that remain alive in this year’s tournament, no team has held down foes better than K-State. The Wildcats’ 102 points allowed through two games tops Syracuse by three points and Michigan by eight. Villanova is fourth at 119 total points allowed, while Purdue and Clemson each have given up 121.
Much of K-State’s defensive credit goes to Barry Brown. The junior stopper held Creighton’s Marcus Foster to five points, 15 below his average, and UMBC’s Jairus Lyles to 12, 16 fewer than the 28 he scored two nights earlier in the 16th-seeded Retrievers’ historic upset of Virginia.
Foster and Lyles combined to go 6 of 26 from the field against Brown and K-State.
“I take a lot of pride in my defense personally,” Brown said. “My coaches know that. They trust me and my teammates trust me to guard the best guard on each team every game, night in, night out.”
Now, the task only gets tougher for Brown and the Wildcats. Kentucky, which features five freshmen averaging at least 9.4 points, scored 173 combined points in tournament wins against Davidson and Buffalo. That offensive effectiveness ranks third among the 16 teams still alive (West Virginia is tops with 179 points followed by Duke at 176).
Kentucky was especially impressive in its 95-75 rout of Buffalo in the second round, shooting 56.3 percent overall (36 of 64) and 46.7 percent from the 3-point arc (7 of 15). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 27 points on 10-of-12 shooting and Hamidou Diallo added 22 on 9-of-12 accuracy.
For the season, 6-foot-9 freshman Kevin Knox leads the SEC Tournament champions with a 15.6-point average. The Wildcats are 9-1 in their last 10, the lone loss coming March 3 at Florida, and average 77.3 points on 47.4 percent shooing.
It’s a classic something-has-to-give Cat fight — the tourney’s best defensive unit versus one of its best offenses.
“We’ll be ready for ’em,” Brown told truTV.
Would you expect anything less?