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Michigan State basketball: Scouting report for Sweet 16 opponent, Kansas State

Kansas State won’t be a cakewalk.



Michigan State basketball
© Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Sweet 16 opponent for Michigan State basketball is beatable, but the Spartans will need to make their shots.

Now that we’ve all had time to enjoy the win over Marquette, it’s time to start thinking about the Sweet 16. Michigan State basketball will play Kansas State on Thursday in New York City.

While the Wildcats have enjoyed a stellar season, they don’t carry the same name recognition as other programs in the Big 12 like Kansas, Texas, and Baylor.

We’ll take a deeper look at Kansas State here to dissect its strengths and weaknesses.


1. Guard play

By now, you’ve probably heard all about Markquis Nowell and his potential to win games by himself – as he did on Sunday against Kentucky. But he only represents one half of the show for Jerome Tang’s Wildcats. Keyontae Johnson is an equally strong player in his own right.

Together, they form one of the best duos in America. While Johnson is a little bit more of a forward than a guard, we’re lumping him in here with Nowell because these two are the cornerstones of this Kansas State basketball team. Nowell and Johnson have played 90.2 percent and 84.3 percent of available minutes this season, respectively. Barring an injury or foul trouble, these guys won’t be coming off the floor on Thursday.

While Nowell carried Kansas State past Kentucky with 27 points, it’s actually Johnson that leads the Wildcats in scoring this season. At 6-foot-6, he has tremendous size that he has also used to lead Kansas State in rebounding. Johnson has also proved to be a much more efficient 3-point shooter at 40.5 percent on the season.

Nowell presents the threat to get hot shooting on his own, but his biggest asset this season has been his passing. He ranks second in all of America in assist rate at 41.4 percent. To give Michigan State basketball fans an idea of how good that is, AJ Hoggard’s assist rate on the season is 39.1 percent — good for sixth in the country.

So, when you think about how important Hoggard is for the Michigan State basketball offense, keep in mind that Nowell is just as – if not more – important for Kansas State. He is also tremendous at generating turnovers and converting from the free throw line. He averages 2.4 steals per game while shooting almost 89 percent from the stripe.

2. Playing fast

It doesn’t show up as much in the season-long metrics, but in Big 12 play, nobody played faster than Kansas State. Per KenPom, they led the conference in adjusted tempo and average possession length on offense.

Normally, teams play fast to offset offensive inefficiencies in an effort to create more possessions, and therefore scoring chances. Kansas State managed to play fast and efficiently this season. They ranked in the top three in the Big 12 in effective field goal percentage, 3-point field goal percentage, and assist-to-field goals made ratio.

Kansas State also did a phenomenal job of getting to and making foul shots. Twenty-three percent of the Wildcats’ points in conference play came from the free throw line.

This is an offense that wants to run, get to the rim, and draw fouls or find open shooters.

3. Defending the three

On the season, opponents are converting just 29.7 percent of their 3-point attempts against the Wildcats. Outside of Nowell, Kansas State possesses good length all over the roster that can bother 3-point shooters.

Opponents are getting just 27.3 percent of their points from beyond the arc this season. The national average is almost 31 percent. Teams are still taking an average number of threes per game against the Wildcats, but they are converting at a far less successful rate than average. Some of this could have to do with the Big 12. While the conference graded out as the top league in the country per KenPom, it was not a good three-point shooting league. Of the 10 teams in the league, seven shot below 34 percent within league play.

4. Beating non-conference opponents 

Of Kansas State’s nine losses this season, all but one came in the Big 12. The Wildcats lost a head-scratcher to Butler on Nov. 30. Outside of that, they are 14-1 in non-conference games this season (including the NCAA tournament). While their non-conference schedule graded out as 255th in America, wins against Nevada, LSU, Wichita State, Nebraska, Florida, and now Kentucky are noteworthy.


1. Rebounding

If you watched any of Kansas State’s game against Kentucky, you know exactly what we’re talking about. Oscar Tshiebwe dominated the Wildcats on the glass. He collected 18 rebounds total, nine of them offensive.

This highlights an area where Kansas State can be had – offensive rebounding. The Wildcats ranked last in the Big 12 and 241st in the country this season in offensive rebounds allowed. In league play, opponents were grabbing an offensive board on over 31 percent of their misses. Kansas State’s own ability to grab offensive rebounds is better but still ranks outside the top 100 in KenPom.

Nae’Qan Tomlin is going to draw most of the minutes at center, with David N’Guessan and Abayomi Iyiola backing him up. Tomlin has shown to be the most effective rebounder of the three, but Johnson, Nowell, and Desi Sills (guards) are grabbing the majority of misses.

2. Turnovers

For as strong as Kansas State is at guard, they have had a major problem with turnovers this season. Jerome Tang’s group has turned the ball over on almost 20 percent of their possessions this season. Nowell, Johnson, Sills, and Cam Carter all own individual turnover rates of greater than 20 percent.

In their nine losses this season, Kansas State has averaged over 17 turnovers per game. In their 25 wins, they are averaging about 13. There is a pretty strict correlation between Kansas State turnovers and their win/loss record. In fact, the Wildcats have yet to lose a game this season when committing fewer than 13 turnovers.

3. Hero ball

This actually turned into a strength in the closing minutes against Kentucky.

The Wildcats took – and made – several deep 3-pointers in the closing minutes on Sunday. While it’s good to have guys who aren’t afraid to take big shots, it can also work against you.

Nowell is a classic example of a volume shooter. While he has made 81 threes on the season, it has taken him 231 attempts to get there. For context, the Michigan State basketball leader in 3-point attempts is Joey Hauser with 158. In eight Big 12 losses this season, here are Nowell’s shooting numbers from three:

  • 2-7 at TCU
  • 4-5 at Iowa State
  • 3-11 at Kansas
  • 0-5 vs. Texas
  • 1-10 at Texas Tech
  • 2-9 at Oklahoma
  • 6-12 at West Virginia
  • 1-9 neutral site vs. TCU

There are two good games in there sprinkled with a bunch of very off nights. The other thing to notice is the volume of shots being taken in these games. Nowell has the mindset of being able to shoot his way out of any slump. When the shots are falling, it looks tremendous. When they’re not, it usually spells trouble for Kansas State’s offense.


Jerome Tang

The first-year head coach for Kansas State has done a marvelous job. The Wildcats were picked to finish last in the Big 12 in the preseason poll. Now, they’re one of the 16 teams still playing for a national championship. The Wildcats have been playing with house money for the majority of this season.

But with all of that being said, this game on Thursday will be the biggest of his coaching career. He was a longtime assistant at Baylor, so he’s no stranger to these types of games. But seeing as it is his first time leading a team into the second weekend, we just don’t know what to expect.

We’ve seen first-year head coaches succeed in this spot before. Last year, Hubert Davis had North Carolina in the final game. Kevin Ollie won six in a row in his first year at Connecticut in 2014. So, while it’s not unheard of for first-year coaches to make a run, experience is usually leaned on at some point in this tournament. It’s key on the court and on the sidelines. But it’s also not a requirement.

As of now, Tang’s scouting, approach, and in-game adjustments are as much of an unknown as anything. That’s neither good nor bad. It’s just one more reason to tune in on Thursday and find out.


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