Kansas State celebrates Diamond Head Classic title (AP)While the rest of the college basketball world was taking Christmas off on Sunday, Kansas State was continuing one of the nation's more impressive under-the-radar non-conference runs.
With a 77-60 slashing of Long Beach State in Honolulu in the Diamond Head Classic title game, K-State improved to 10-1 on the year. It's a start few predicted after the program lost its top player and unquestioned heart and soul — Jacob Pullen — to graduation after last season and was left with a roster full of newcomers and guys who had never been more than complimentary pieces.
Instead of just one of those guys emerging and filling Pullen's shoes, it's been a successful collaborative effort, as this may be the most cohesive group Frank Martin has had in his five seasons at the helm in Manhattan.
So far, including Sunday's triumph, the Wildcats own quality wins over Alabama and on the road against Virginia Tech. Their lone loss came in double overtime against West Virginia — hardly a setback to be ashamed of. They'll get a much-needed rest now before closing non-conference play at home against Howard on Dec. 31, then open Big 12 play with a brutal three-game stretch that starts at rival Kansas on Jan. 4, then is followed up by home games against Missouri and Baylor.
While last year's team dealt with waves of adversity before the Big 12 season began — such as unsightly losses, transfers and suspensions — this one has gone in a different direction, simply getting stronger from the start.
• Sophomore Will Spradling has been steady in the lead guard role. After drawing several of those patented stares from Martin a year a who while learning on the job as a freshman, Spradling has been far from turnover prone while continuing to develop as a deadly 3-point shooter. Also, he's become a stellar defender, holding LBSU star Casper Ware to a 5-of-18 shooting performance on Sunday.
• Junior guard Rodney McGruder, the team's top returner from a year ago, has struggled with his outside shot, firing at just a 25 percent clip this year. Sunday's 28-point outburst went as, by far, his best offensive performance of the season, but he's been consistent in that he's given something positive every night.
• A freshman class that looked like one which would need a healthy amount of seasoning before contributing regularly has developed faster than expected. Big-bodied 6-foot-7 forward Thomas Gipson has started all 11 games, averaging 10.6 points and 7.1 rebounds, while guard Angel Rodriguez is establishing himself as the team's top option off of the bench. The diminutive Miami native can get a little wild with the ball, but led the team in scoring in its first two games in Hawaii, scoring a combined 33 points against Southern Illinois and UTEP.
• As a team, K-State's defense has been consistently strong. They're forcing 16.5 turnovers per game while holding opponents to just 37.3 percent shooting and an ugly 27.7 percent from beyond the arc. They're also out-rebounding foes by almost seven caroms per game.
As a result of all of this, K-State is starting the Big 12 season with a good amount of rope once it hits a bit of adversity. Its NCAA tournament résumé should be able to hold up through it as long as the Cats don't completely hit the skids, and its a much nicer position than the one they unexpectedly faced at this time last year, starting the conference schedule with their backs against a wall. After failing to live up to the hype as the nation's third-ranked team at the beginning of the year, K-State fell to 14-8 overall and 2-5 in the Big 12 before turning things around.
Maybe it has something to do with starting the season with minimal expectations. If Martin's teams have proven anything, it's that they're at their best when no one sees it coming.
Follow Ryan Greene on Twitter: @ryanmgreene
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